Monthly Archives: November 2010


The last time we saw Marcy's bird feeder there was a cute black-capped chickadee on it.

I thought her feeder was squirrel proof because it hangs from a slender hook far from the pole, but those barriers aren't a problem for this acrobat.

Look how this squirrel uses his back feet!  Look at his thumbs!

...At least he isn't a bear.  😉

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Anatomy: Furcula

Six days from now most Americans will get to see a bird skeleton.  After Thanksgiving dinner is over many will save the wishbone, dry it out, and pull it to make a wish. 

What is this bone? 

The real name of the wishbone is the furcula or "little fork."  It's actually the bird's collar bones fused together in the center.  It acts as a spacer between the bird's shoulders, strengthens its skeleton for flight and may even help it breathe

Because the furcula is U-shaped, it works like an elastic spring when the bird flies.  On the downbeat the U opens wide, on the upstroke it returns to the resting position. 

Open, rest, open, rest.  Imagine how fast the furcula vibrates inside a hummingbird!

Save the furcula from your turkey next Thursday and before it dries notice how flexible the U is and how well the fused center holds.   

Dry the furcula for three days.  Then find someone to pull it with you

I hope you get your wish.

(photo from the blog wheniwas8. Click the photo to see the blog where it appears.)

Peregrines in November

People often ask me, "Do Pittsburgh's peregrines leave in the winter?" 

No, they don't, but they're hard to find because they keep such a low profile. 

At this time of year peregrines don't show off with fancy courtship and territorial displays so it was exciting to hear from three peregrine fans that the Gulf Tower falcons have been active in the past week.

Last Friday Sharon Leadbitter saw a peregrine perched on the observation deck of the Gulf Tower and took this picture from USX Tower. 

On Saturday Barb Becker had so much work to do that she went to her office at Make-A-Wish and was rewarded by hearing and seeing Dori and Louie courting at the nest box. 

And just two days ago Anne Marie Bosnyak saw a peregrine near Duquesne University.

The Pitt peregrines have been active too. 

A week ago Karen Lang and I saw two peregrines perched on the Cathedral of Learning's lightning rod for several hours.  E2 faced north, Dorothy faced south to keep their eyes on all of Oakland. 

Last Friday at lunchtime we were treated to a closer look when E2 flew "kak-ing" over Fifth Avenue, pursuing a threat so minor that we never saw it, but the best was yet to come. 

Yesterday we saw E2 flapping hard, carrying a huge pigeon back to the Cathedral of Learning for Dorothy's lunch.  The wind was so strong and the prey so heavy that he couldn't gain enough altitude to reach the dining ledge so he circled near the building, called several times in a loud voice and landed briefly on a window unit around the 20th floor.  He must have been calling Dorothy because she followed when he flew with the prey to St. Paul's Cathedral.

I'm amazed we've seen so much of them.  I wonder what today will bring!

(photo by Sharon Leadbitter)

Winter Weeds: Common Mullein

A weed is in the eye of the beholder.

As Marcy Cunkelman so aptly pointed out in the comments last week, just because a plant is currently not popular in gardens does not make it a weed.  Some plants go in and out of fashion -- Dense Blazing Star for example.

Nonetheless, today's plant is truly unpopular.  It was brought here from Europe for medicinal purposes and escaped into the wild where it grows quite successfully in waste places, especially next to roads.

Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is a biennial that is simply Not Beautiful and for that it is called a weed.

In winter you'll find it in two forms.  In its first year it's a basal rosette of large, velvety leaves similar in feel to the garden plant Lambs Ears.  The leaves die in the frost but the root lives on and sprouts a stalk two to eight feet high the following spring.  Click here to see what the stalk looks like in winter.

The second-year skeleton is easy to see because it's so tall.  Its coarse, stout, fuzzy stem has alternate leaves and is topped by one or more flower spikes, shown above.  In summer these spikes were studded with yellow, five-petalled flowers up to an inch wide.  Now they've gone to seed.

Common Mullein provides winter food for birds in two ways.  The plant hosts many insects that the birds consume for protein and its seeds are food for finches, chickadees and downy woodpeckers.

Watch a Common Mullein skeleton to see who eats from it.

Of course, the plant has to be there for you to watch it, which leads me to the promise I made last week that I would tell you why you should not clear your garden in the fall.  The answer is in the blog entry below this one.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Why Not To Clear Your Garden

Last week I promised to tell you why it's good to keep your garden standing through the winter, but I'm no expert so I turned to Marcy Cunkelman for advice.

Here are some general principles, then her entire response below.

Why not clear your garden in the fall?  Here are some quick reasons:

  • The seeds provide winter food for birds and animals.
  • The brush provides shelter.
  • If you leave the old plants standing you don't have to mulch.
  • Insects overwinter on the plants in egg masses, cocoons and galls.  Birds eat them.
  • You will learn a lot by watching the birds find food among the plants.

Here's Marcy's complete answer:

Most people like to clear everything in the fall because it "looks good" all cleared up.  I don't mulch my plants for the winter. I leave my garden standing and it protects the plants.

I will cut back some things if they break and the wind starts moving them from one place to the other.  Grasses are a good example of this, especially the heavy leaves.  After seed heads are eaten I don't mind cutting them back BUT you need to look hard for praying mantis egg cases, chrysalises and cocoons.  This is how most insects overwinter.

If I had a problem plant with scale or aphids, I cut it back and get rid of the problem stems (do NOT put in the compost).

I am always amazed to see how birds use the plants. I wouldn't have noticed this if I took down the goldenrod galls or missed that praying mantis egg case, I wouldn't have seen the downy woodpecker or chickadees getting the little treasures inside.

If you do have to clear, then at least save the seed heads and keep them some place where the birds will be able to eat them through the winter.  Maybe some will seed and root and you'll have a little "wild area" the birds and other critters will enjoy.  I have been taking seed heads and sprinkling them in areas around the yard, edges of the woods and my "meadow" so there will be a variety of plants for the birds and butterflies.

Something else I like to do, when I make jellies I save the leftover pulp and freeze and thaw it out and put it out for the birds in winter.  The fruit loving birds will eat it and it doesn't go to waste.  I usually do this if I have a mockingbird, robins or bluebirds in the winter.  Most years the flocks of robins begin to return to the yard in late February or early March.

When I start to see the "noses" of the daffodils pushing up in the spring it's time for me to start cleaning the beds, usually around the pond areas first since that is the most visible from the house.  I love to see the progression from nothing to at least 5 changes of season in the plants, birds, butterflies and other critters.   -- Marcy Cunkleman


(photo by Chuck Tague)

The Voice of a Crowd

It's unusual to hear birdsong in November so when I heard a flock singing the other day, I had to investigate.

My first problem was finding them.  Their voices were faint and far away.  Which tree were they in?

I walked around listening until I homed in on an apple tree but when I looked at the tree I saw no birds at all.  I could hear robins, cardinals, blue jays and... wait... the contact call of a scarlet tanager?!?

Scarlet tanagers are in South America now so the only voice that could have uttered that sound was a mimic: a brown thrasher or a mockingbird.  Brown thrashers have left Pittsburgh too -- they're in the southern U.S. -- so the songster had to be the fellow pictured above.  A northern mockingbird.

Eventually I found him hiding among the curled, dried, apple leaves, whisper-singing like a hundred different birds.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Avoiding Unintended Consequences

Chuck Tague sent me news from Florida Audubon of a well meaning plan to control an exotic plant that would have disastrous consequences for the snail kite.

Snail kites are unusual birds of prey with red eyes and deeply hooked beaks that specialize in just one food:  the apple snail, so-called because its shell resembles an apple.

Apple snails live in clean, warm, freshwater lakes and wetlands, so that's where the snail kite lives too.  Most of the snail kite's range is in South America.  In the U.S. they are found only in Florida but are increasingly rare and now considered endangered in this country.  Their population dropped from 3,000 in the mid-1990's to only 700 birds today due to habitat loss, the degradation of the Everglades, and a huge drop in the population of native apple snails. 

But there is one bright spot.  Snail kites also eat the exotic invasive Island Apple Snail (Pomacea insularum), pictured here, that thrives in the presence of a plant called hydrilla.

And that's where the trouble begins.  Hydrilla is both exotic and invasive.  It jams boat propellers and clogs lakewater habitat, so to make room for navigation and native species the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission planned control measures to get rid of it.  The problem is, if the hydrilla is gone, the population of island apple snails will crash and this will starve off the last remaining snail kites in Florida. 

That's why Florida Audubon mobilized their members to attend a meeting in Kissimmee last week to urge Florida FWC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife not to enact an aggressive hydrilla control plan at Lake Toho. 

Citizen comments prior to the meeting already helped the situation.  According to a Florida Fish and Wildlife news release, FWC and USFW modified their plan to clear hydrilla only from the navigation channels, making sure that enough hydrilla and apple snails remain to feed the snail kites. 

And so they'll avoid the unintended consequence of extirpating snail kites from the United States.  

Read more about the snail kite's tenuous life in FL here.

(photo of Snail Kite by Steve Gosser, photo of Island Apple Snail by Chuck Tague)

A Crow in Jay’s Clothing?

To those of us in eastern North America this bird looks all mixed up. 

He has a crow head, blue jay colors and an incredibly long tail.  He resembles crows and jays because he's a corvid.  We don't see him in Pennsylvania because he lives west of Iowa and east of the Sierra Nevadas.  Say hello to the black-billed magpie.

I saw this bird once.  But now I have never seen him.  Years ago I saw a magpie outside my airplane window as we taxied to the gate at Charles de Gaulle airport.  Then, in their never-ending quest to reclassify birds the American Ornithological Union split the black-billed magpie from the European magpie and this bird dropped off my life list.   He is now Pica hudsonia.  The bird I saw in Paris was a Pica pica.

If I visited open country in the western U.S. I could easily re-add this bird to my list.  Black-billed magpies are loud and conspicuous, midway in size between blue jays and American crows.  Like crows they are smart, omnivorous and versatile.  Their claim to fame is their very long tail (more than half their body length) and their huge ball-shaped stick nests.

Maybe I should fly to Denver and look out the airplane window.  😉

(photo by Julie Brown)

Explosion of Yellow

An explosion of yellow.  That's what Jonathan Nadle said of this photo he took in Beechview yesterday.  What a beautiful day!

The trees in Pittsburgh still have leaves, but don't assume we have some special formula for extending autumn.  This tree is yellow because it's confused.

This is a Norway maple, so it sheds its leaves in response to fall light levels in northern Europe.  When it experiences 10 hours of daylight, which is exactly what we'll have today, it thinks it's mid-October.

You can take the tree out of Norway but you can't take Norway out of the tree.

(photo by Jonathan Nadle)

Anatomy: Excretion

Any visit to a crow roost focuses one's mind on the subject of bird poop.  How do I to avoid it? Will it stain? Do they time this so they'll hit me?   So in today's anatomy lesson I'm skipping over the next logical topic in bird digestion and jumping directly to the back end.  Hold on to your hats!

Unlike mammals, birds have a single opening for both urinary and digestive excretions so their poop is made of two components: output from their kidneys and from their intestines.

Birds' kidneys are a miracle of water conservation.  Instead of passing urea and water their kidneys produce uric acid, a white, crystalline, semi-solid that's not water soluble and is full of nitrogen.  This makes it a good fertilizer that's easy to collect because it doesn't wash away.

If you were on the receiving end of bird poop and it was only made of uric acid, it wouldn't immediately stain your clothes.  You could probably scrape it off.  Unfortunately the second component of bird poop -- digestive waste -- is disgusting and it can stain.  Pokeberries make purple marks no matter whether you daub them on your clothes yourself or receive a little "gift" from a bird.  Need I say more?

You may not have noticed, but birds poop just before they fly to lighten their load.  I sometimes amaze my friends by remarking, "That hawk is about to take off," and then it does.  They don't know I just saw it poop.

Some people think birds are aiming for them.  "Do they time this so they'll hit me?"  Not exactly.  If you stand below a flock of birds and give them the creeps they'll get ready to fly.  When they lighten their load you might get hit, but they weren't aiming for you.

Which brings me full circle to the crow roost and a word to the wise:  The absolute worst time of day to be on the ground under the roost is just when the flock disperses at dawn.

Wear a hat.  Better yet, wear a rain slicker and carry an umbrella.


(photo of the Ruskin Avenue sidewalk below the crow roost, by Kate St. John)