Monthly Archives: January 2014


House sparrows in snow in Moscow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows are always gregarious, but more so in winter when they flock together in large numbers.

In the morning and afternoon they disperse to feed, but twice a day -- at midday and in the evening -- they gather in dense shrubs or evergreens and chatter for an hour or more.  They sound a lot like this.(*)

You might not hear them in today's cold weather but when you do it's unmistakable.  They're in a bush alive with birds ... but you can't see them.  I've tried to count them but they fall silent and hide when I approach.  I rarely see even one.

Here's a flock in a tree, somewhat hidden but easier to see than inside a privet hedge!

House sparrows in a bush in Saskatoon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows love each others' company so much that, according to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior, some travel up to four miles to join the roost.

"Gregarious" works for house sparrows -- from Latin gregarius (from grexgreg- ‘a flock’) + -ous (to make it an adjective).


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

(*)  The sounds at the link above are similar but not quite the same as winter chatter because they're from a more intense breeding chase in April.  Listen to this segment from BirdNote for all the sounds house sparrows make.

Turning Blue

Ruddy ducks at Conneaut Lake, PA in January (photo by Shawn Collins)

These ruddy ducks that Shawn Collins photographed last weekend look so brown and bland you might wonder why they're called "ruddy."

Right now they're wearing their boring basic (winter) plumage but the bird at left shows a hint that spring is coming.  His bill is turning blue.

During the breeding season male ruddy ducks have sky blue bills, ruddy body feathers and very black heads.  They swim with their tails cocked and their head and neck feathers raised, the better to show off the bubbling display to the ladies ... like this:

Male ruddy duck in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Watch for male ruddy ducks to complete this transformation.

You'll know it's spring when they have blue bills.


(photo of two ruddy ducks in basic plumage by Shawn Collins.  photo of single ruddy duck in breeding plumage from Wikimedia Commons -- click on the image to see the original)

Falcon Identification Challenge

Last Friday Ginataras Baltusis filmed an immature peregrine falcon preening in New York City.   I found the video interesting because the bird is banded and has a pale face and head with long white eyebrow stripes.

The pale head made me think of the tundra subspecies from the arctic.  The bands made me think, "This bird hatched near people, not in the arctic."  The head stripes are a puzzle.

Is this a tundra peregrine?  (Compare to this tundra peregrine in Pittsburgh in 2008.)   Is it a peregrine hybrid, perhaps a falconer's escaped bird?  Or have I just been fooled by a bird with unusual head feathers?

What do you think?


(video by Ginataras Baltusis)


Winter Hardy

Carolina wren in winter (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

A hundred years ago Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) were a southern bird rarely found in southwestern Pennsylvania but they expanded northward during the 20th century, even into Canada.

Carolina wrens don't migrate so they have to cope with winter wherever they settle down.  When winters are severe they die off and are rarely seen until new individuals disperse northward to fill the gaps.  This was particularly noticeable after the harsh winter of 1977-78 when it took them ten years to recover their northern haunts.

Since then they've done quite well, a success due in part to human changes to the landscape.  Warmer winters, regrown woodlots, and backyard bird feeders all make it easier for Carolina wrens to survive though it wouldn't have been possible without a change on their part, too.  In 1912 Dr. Frank Chapman considered them to be woodland birds unadaptable to human settings but by 1948 Arthur Bent observed that there was plenty of evidence they'd made the change.  Indeed we see them near our homes every day.

This winter may be a tough challenge for Carolina wrens.  During the polar vortex January 6-7 many birders were concerned that their favorite wrens would perish. We were happily surprised that they came through, sometimes by hiding in our buildings, during the two-day cold snap.

This week will bring another, longer round of arctic cold with temperatures down to 0oF.  Will our wrens make it through this time?

Fill your feeders and cross your fingers.  May our Carolina wrens be winter-hardy, greeting us with their loud calls and songs when the weather warms again.


(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Let’s Get Subtropical

Reddish egret (photo by Chuck Tague)

OK, it's cold again, but not (yet) so cold as the worst we've seen this month so I think we can afford to get "subtropical" today.

Chuck Tague photographed this reddish egret in the subtropics between the 35th parallel and the Tropic of Cancer -- specifically, in Florida.

Reddish egrets (Egretta rufescens) are found from Florida and the U.S. Gulf Coast, down both coasts of Central America to the Caribbean edge of South America.  But they're not found everywhere.  They only fish in shallow saltwater so they're restricted to specific locations, always coastal.  Click here for their range map.

Some reddish egrets are actually white but most have this distinctive reddish head, gray body and black-tipped pink bill.  They're easy to identify if you watch them hunt.  They jump and dart like crazed dancers with their wings open.

Don't take this beautiful bird for granted.  It's listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List because "despite its large range it occupies a restricted habitat and is patchily distributed."

If you're at the coast within its range, take the opportunity to look for a reddish egret.


(photo by Chuck Tague)

Looking For Lunch

Coopers Hawk at Marcy Cunkelman's, Jan 2013 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Yesterday the weather was cold and sunny but the birds could tell snow was coming.

Seed and fruit-eating birds were busy chowing down at the feeders and fruit trees.  Birds of prey patrolled those areas looking for lunch.

When all the little birds flush at once, look for a hawk.

Perhaps it will be an immature Cooper's hawk like this one.

Click here for tips on the difference between look-alike Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks.  Start practicing now for the Great Backyard Bird Count, February 14-17.


(photo of "Mr. Cooper" by Cris Hamilton)

Black Tents

Common raven landing near a tent at a campsite in Death Valley, as seen from the back (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We all know that wearing black is hot in the sun but did you know that it's cooler than other colors when there's a breeze?

According to page 154 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill: "The cooling effects of wind are most pronounced on black feathers, which concentrate solar heat near the surface of the plumage.  Black feathers can increase the amount of heat that a bird's body absorbs from the environment when there is no breeze. A light breeze, however, removes the accumulating surface heat and reduces further penetration of the radiant heat."

"The black plumage of desert ravens increases convective heat loss, as do the robes and tents of Bedouin tribes in the Sahara."

Whoa!  Black tents.  I had no idea people used black tents in the desert. (Obviously I've not been paying attention.)

Here's a photo of a Bedouin tent in Jordan. Notice that the top is black!  The cloth is woven from the hair of their black goats.
Bedouin black tent in Jordan (photo by Anita Gould, Cretve Commons license, Flickr)

Use of black tents is not restricted to the Bedouin tribes in the Sahara and Middle East.  The color is popular in the middle of the arid lands that stretch from Africa to Asia as shown on this map from The Black Tent in Its Easternmost Distribution: The Case of the Tibetan Plateau by Angela Manderscheid.

Locations where black tents are traditionally used (linked from Case Western Reserve Univ,
Locations where black tents are traditionally used (from Case Western Reserve Univ, "The Black Tent in Its Easternmost Distribution: The Case of the Tibetan Plateau" by Angela Manderscheid)


People learned that black is cooler in the desert and adapted accordingly.

The raven knew it long before people found out.

Amazingly, a raven entered the scene as I was developing this article.  When I searched for a Bedouin "black tent" photo on Wikimedia Commons one result was this raven landing in a campground at Death Valley National Park.

His outspread plumage looks like a black tent.


(photo of a raven landing near a tent in Death Valley National Park via Wikimedia Commons. Photo of a Bedouin tent by Anita Gould, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Click on the images to see the originals. Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 154 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.)

excerpt link to Afghanistan: An Atlas of Indigenous Domestic Architecture by Albert Szabo, Thomas Jefferson Barfield.

The Largest Living Organism

Armillaria ostoyae (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On my way to somewhere else I found...

It's hard to believe these mushrooms represent the largest living organism but they're the outward and visible sign of a subterranean and sub-bark network.

The network can be quite large, as described here on Wikipedia:  "The largest living fungus may be a honey fungus of the species Armillaria ostoyae [now called Armillaria solidipes].  A mushroom of this type in the Malheur National Forest in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon was found to be the largest fungal colony in the world, spanning 8.9 km² (2,200 acres) [and] estimated to be 2,400 years old.  ... If this colony is considered a single organism, then it is the largest known organism in the world by area."

And so it was named the "Humongous Fungus."

There are many species of Armillaria, all with dark shoestring-like rhizomorphs that grow through the soil or under bark and white mycelial fans which spread under bark via root contacts and root grafts.  Here's what they look like: rhizomorphs on the left, mycelia on the right.  (For a sense of scale, these are tree trunks)

Armillaria rhizomorphs and mycelia (photos from

Sometimes the mycelia are luminescent and cause foxfire!

Armillaria spreads widely. Click on the image below to see an animation from an article on Armillaria root rot by J. Worrall at

Animated disease cycle of Armillaria infection. (Courtesy J. Worrall, copyright-free)


Fascinating as their huge size may be, Armillaria infects trees and can either kill them outright or be a contributing factor to their demise.  I have seen Armillaria in Schenley Park without realizing what it was: rhizomorphs, mycelia and mushrooms.

So now I understand how a live tree can just fall over...

Bur oak toppled by armillaria root rot (Joseph O'Brien, USDA Forest Service,

... when infected by Armillaria root rot.


(photo credits:  mushrooms by Walter J. Pilsak via Wikimedia Commons (click on the image to see the original).  Rhizomorphs and dead tree on grass by Joseph O'Brien, USDA Forest Service via  White mycelial fan by Borys M. Tkacz, USDA Forest Service via

Getting Ready For Spring

Peregrine, Mo, landed briefly on the corner, Canton, OH (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

Despite winter's cold and gloom our resident peregrines are getting ready for spring.   This recent photo of Mo in Canton, Ohio by Chad+Chris Saladin is a good example of what our birds are up to.  Their first order of business is "Be seen!"

Peregrines' long breeding cycle -- four to five months from egg to independence -- and the timing of prey abundance forces them to start getting ready during the winter.  If they don't begin now their young won't survive.  Procrastinators are eliminated from the gene pool.

As with most birds, their hormones are triggered by the length of daylight.  Today the sun will be up in Pittsburgh an additional 17 minutes since the winter solstice, more than enough to get the juices flowing.  Peregrines are already renewing their territorial boundaries and beginning courtship.  Here's what they're up to in western Pennsylvania:

  • At the University of Pittsburgh, Dorothy and E2 have been quite visible at the Cathedral of Learning.  Since the New Year I've seen both of them perched high on the building or circling in territorial "flappy flight" displays.  Often they wait and watch.  Occasionally E2 tries to entice Dorothy to come bow at the nest, flying around her then landing at the nest, hoping she'll join him.  Here he is, just arrived, watching for her.  He isn't always successful at this but it's early days yet.

E2 says, Hey, Dorothy! 14 Jan 2014 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at University of Pittsburgh)

  • The Downtown peregrines are more visible too, near Point Park University.  After months of their absence Amanda McGuire was startled when, not paying attention, she went out on her patio and looked up to see a peregrine perched on her balcony railing!  She froze in place and the bird gazed at her for a minute or two as if to say "You are nothing to me," then flew away.  Wow!
  • The Tarentum Bridge peregrines are "being seen."  Sean Dicer photographed one perched on the bridge on January 5.
  • At Monaca, Ed Richards reported a peregrine perched on the big railroad bridge over the Ohio River on January 4.  This inaccessible location is probably where they nested last year.
  • BREAKING NEWS, January 16:  Jim Hausman saw a peregrine falcon perched at the Green Tree water tower.  (In my original post I'd written that no one had seen any peregrines there since October.)
  • At the Westinghouse Bridge, Candy saw a peregrine on one of the lightposts on January 3 (see the Comments).
  • There are no reports yet from two other bridges -- McKees Rocks and Neville Island I-79 -- but I can imagine it's because we haven't been out there during the winter.

Start watching now for peregrine activity.  They don't have much time.  They'll lay their first eggs in mid to late March -- only 8-10 weeks from now.

The excitement is building!


(photo of Mo coming in for a landing in Canton, Ohio, late December 2013 by Chad+Chris Saladin.  Photo of E2 at the nestbox via the National Aviary falconcam at the University of Pittsburgh)

p.s.  We're getting ready, too.  Watch for falconcam improvements this month at the Cathedral of Learning.  The National Aviary bought an HD (high-definition) webcam!  I'll keep you posted.

Inca Birds

Inca tern at the National Aviary (photo by Shawn Collins)

My blog about the pyramid of Inca doves got me thinking of birds named for the Incan people.   How many of these names exist?

A search found 13 birds with "Inca" in their English names...


Black Inca Coeligena prunellei
Bronzy Inca Coeligena coeligena
Brown Inca Coeligena wilsoni
Collared Inca Coeligena torquata


Buff-bridled Inca-finch Incaspiza laeta
Great Inca-finch Incaspiza pulchra
Grey-winged Inca-finch Incaspiza ortizi
Little Inca-finch Incaspiza watkinsi
Rufous-backed Inca-finch Incaspiza personata

Other species:

Inca Dove Columbina inca
Inca Flycatcher Leptopogon taczanowskii
Inca Tern Larosterna inca
Inca Wren Thryothorus eisenmanni

...and prompted two quiz questions:

  1. All but one of these species is native to South America.  Which bird doesn't live in the land of the Incas?
  2. Can you think of birds named for other native American tribes or empires?  I can think of only one.


(photo of an Inca tern at the National Aviary by Shawn Collins)