Archive for the 'Doves & Chickens' Category

Jun 25 2012

Wedding Doves

Published by under Doves & Chickens

This month I’ve seen a few reports on PABIRDS of lone white doves at backyard bird feeders.  The writer usually asks, “Where did this bird come from?”

I have a theory.

June is a popular month for weddings and the weather allows for a beautiful tradition — a white dove release.  At the end of the ceremony the bride and groom each hold and release a dove or a whole flock is released from small cages draped in white.

Symbolizing love and peace the doves circle up together and fly away, seemingly into the blue.

In fact they fly home.

These romantic birds come from a dove release service.  They are actually white homing pigeons and the dove keeper is counting on their flocking and homing instincts to bring them back to the dovecote so they can be rented again.

They circle up together because they want to be with their friends (flock) and they want to go home.  Miraculously in the few seconds it takes them to circle the wedding grounds they figure out where they are and where to go — and then they fly home.

Normally each bird would reach home, even if flying alone, but sometimes one gets confused along the way.  Eventually he stops and finds a flock of compatriots — pigeons.  He isn’t at home but that’s OK.  He’s with a flock.

So when you find a random white dove in an odd place in June, it’s probably a confused bird for hire.

(Sorry to burst your bubble about wedding doves.  Yes, they are white pigeons.)

(photo from

9 responses so far

Dec 01 2011

Why Did The Turkeys Cross the Road?

Published by under Doves & Chickens

Ted Sohier called my office yesterday, “There’s a flock of wild turkeys outside the lunchroom window.”   Alas, I missed the call and an “Outside My Window” moment with wild turkeys, but I heard all about it.

The excitement began around 12:15pm when a flock of six wild turkeys stopped traffic on Fifth Avenue as they crossed at Neville, heading south.  Unafraid of cars and people they disappeared into the wooded area between the CMU Residence and Central Catholic.

Fortunately it was lunchtime.  A paving crew had been tearing up WQED’s parking lot all morning but they’d left for lunch and the coast was clear.  From Central Catholic the turkeys spied our small garden and pond and headed straight for it across the parking lot.  Water and food!

The garden is barely large enough to contain six turkeys but they browsed for insects and drank from the pond while several staff members lined up inside the lunchroom to watch them at very close range.  Stephen Baum photographed them from two angles.  Click on the image above to watch a slideshow of their activities.

Eventually the turkeys tired of the garden and headed back to Fifth Avenue where they paused at WQED’s front door near the Mister Rogers dinosaur (an ancient relative) before continuing east.

Where did they come from?  Where did they go?  Why did the turkeys cross the road?

I don’t know but I’d sure like to find out.

(photos by Stephen Baum)

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Nov 24 2011

Zoology of Desire

The most fascinating principle I learned from Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire is that the plants humans want (desire) are the ones that thrive.

Thanksgiving is a good reminder that this principle applies to turkeys, too.

Humans have probably hunted wild turkeys since Native Americans first arrived on this continent.  The pre-Columbian Mexicans domesticated wild turkeys between 800BC and 200BC.

When Spanish conquistadors arrived 2,000 years later, in the early 1500s, they agreed that domestic turkeys were quite tasty and shipped some back home.  Turkey became such a popular food in Europe that when the English settlers came to North America they brought domestic turkeys with them.

Wild turkeys were at their peak.  Then things went downhill.  Over the next 200 years habitat loss and unregulated hunting decimated the wild turkey population until there were only a few thousand left in Pennsylvania.

They could have gone extinct in eastern North America.  Our desire brought them back.

In the late 1800’s Pennsylvania realized that hunting had to be regulated.  The newly formed Pennsylvania Game Commission banned turkey hunting and rebuilt the population by stocking birds from Mexico.  Then in 1929 they began a propagation program that raised wild turkeys for release into the wild.

This combination worked so well that today Pennsylvania’s wild turkeys have a thriving population of over 360,000 birds.

Wild turkeys are smart about predators, as we learned on PBS’s My Life as a Turkey. They’re wary where hunted but relatively easy to see in Pittsburgh’s suburbs and city parks.

So on Thanksgiving Day it’s interesting to reflect that most of us eat domestic turkeys.  Our desire to eat them nearly extirpated wild turkeys and that same desire brought them back.

Turkeys could be a chapter in the zoology of desire.

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

p.s. If you missed My Life as a Turkey on PBS, you can watch the full episode online here.

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Nov 10 2011

My Life As A Turkey

Next Wednesday on PBS Nature

Back in the 1990’s biologist and wildlife artist Joe Hutto spent two years in the Florida Flatwoods as mother to a flock of wild turkeys.

It began when a neighboring farmer dropped off a clutch of 16 orphaned wild turkey eggs and Joe decided to imprint them.

When the eggs hatched Joe made sure the first pair of eyes they saw were his own.  The hatchlings immediately recognized him as their mother and thus began the strange and wonderful journey that became his 1998 book, Illumination in the Flatwoods.

My Life as a Turkey shows what happened, the joys of discovery and the sadness of death, as the peeps became poults and then adult birds.  Day after day, week after week, Joe’s bond with his turkeys grew stronger.  The more time he spent with them, the more he learned and the less detached he became.  He was their parent, they were his family.  He learned to live in the present as they did.  He often felt more turkey than human.

My Life As A Turkey is beautiful, moving, sad and fascinating.

“Had I known what was in store—the difficult nature of the study and the time I was about to invest—I would have been hard pressed to justify such an intense involvement. But, fortunately, I naively allowed myself to blunder into a two-year commitment that was at once exhausting, often overwhelming, enlightening, and one of the most inspiring and satisfying experiences of my life.”

–Joe Hutto, Illumination in the Flatwoods

Don’t miss My Life As A Turkey next Wednesday, November 16 on PBS Nature.  On WQED it’s at 8:00pm.

You will never look at a wild turkey the same way again.

(photo from My Life As A Turkey)

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Apr 12 2011

Festive Head Gear

We have lots of upland game birds in Pennsylvania but none of them have head plumes like this.  I had to visit the western U.S. to find birds with topknots.

Gambel’s quail (Callipepla gambelii) live in the southwest, including southern Nevada.  Though they can fly they prefer to walk or run away from danger, their topknots bobbing as they go.  It makes them look kind of festive, almost silly.

What are the head plumes for?

I read that during courtship the male stands high on his legs, puffs himself out and bows to the ground bobbing his head.  This makes his head plumes quiver and shows the rusty top of his head to his potential mate.  You’d think this would impress his lady but studies have shown the plumes themselves make no difference in mate selection.

So the question is still open:  Why do they wear deely boppers?

Maybe they just like to have fun. 😉

(photo from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the photo to see the original)

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Apr 01 2011

Pigeon Quiz

Published by under Doves & Chickens,Quiz

For April Fools’ Day I couldn’t resist a little quiz about the amazing talents of pigeons. 

Are any of these statements true? 

  1. During World War II electronic missile guidance systems were not yet reliable so the NDRC funded a project to use trained pigeons to guide missiles.
  2. Pigeons can hear distant thunderstorms and far-away volcanoes that we cannot hear.
  3. Pigeon nests are cemented with pigeon poop.
  4. Google uses “pigeon clusters” to enhance its search technology.
  5. Some pigeons can fly 600 miles a day.
  6. Pigeons can rescue people capsized at sea.

Want to hazard a guess?  Leave a comment with your answer.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

18 responses so far

Mar 10 2011

More Courtship Flights

Courtship is well underway among Pittsburgh’s resident birds.

On sunny days red-tailed hawks seem to be everywhere, soaring to claim territory and court their mates.  Sometimes you can’t tell the difference between courtship and chasing.  Is he driving away an intruder or impressing his mate?  And, my heavens, his scream sounds scary!  (Read more about red-tail courtship here.)

Because I love watching peregrines and hawks, I often pay attention to their favorite food: pigeons.  That’s how I noticed that rock pigeons make courtship flights, too.

Most of pigeon courtship occurs on the ground but there are two flight behaviors that tell you they’re courting. 

The first is wing clapping in which a pigeon takes off from the flock making a loud snapping sound as he claps his wings together at the top of his upstroke.  This behavior is usually initiated by a male to advertise his sexual maturity.  His action often prompts other members of the flock to take off and clap their wings as well.

The other display occurs when a pair breaks off from the flock in flight.  Eventually one or both will soar with their wings held upright in a stiff V.

I’ve sometimes seen a trio break away and fly together but only two of them do the V flight.  I’ll bet these trios are one female with two males and the guys are trying to impress her.  It certainly looks less dangerous than what red-tails do!

(photo from Shutterstock)

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Feb 04 2011

Anatomy: He Has a Beard

Even though this turkey’s chin is scruffy, that’s not where his beard is. 

The “beard” on a wild turkey is that cluster of long hairlike feathers sticking out of the center of his chest.  They average nine inches long. 

Generally only male turkeys have beards but 10 to 20 percent of female turkeys grow them as well.  This poses a problem for those ladies during Spring Gobbler hunting season when only bearded (i.e. male) turkeys can be hunted. 

Don’t worry about this turkey, though.  He’s probably safe all year long because he’s a regular in Cris Hamilton’s back yard.

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

3 responses so far

Jan 23 2011

Hiding in Snow

We just went through a very weird weather week that started and ended with snow but melted in the middle… and now it’s very cold!

Last month I mentioned that willow ptarmigan hide in the snow to avoid predators.  Here’s one nestled up to its neck, almost invisible except for his beak and eyes. 

It’s awesome that he stays warm.

I don’t think Pittsburgh has enough snow to hide a ptarmigan right now, but I bet the Laurel Highlands does!

(photo by from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original.)

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Jan 03 2011

Who’s In Charge Here?

On Saturday I counted birds in my neighborhood for the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count on the wettest, rainiest day we’ve had in a very long time.  The only birds that moved were crows, starlings and pigeons.

The pigeons caught my attention because they were so hard to count.  Just after dawn a flock of two dozen birds began their morning flight routine.  They started off slowly but as they warmed up they flew in tighter formation, faster and faster, closer and closer together, changing direction often.  I marveled at how well they stayed in sync.  They were very hard to count! 

At the height of their exercise I noticed the flock changed direction so quickly that the leader must have ended up in the back of the group.  How did they do this and still maintain their formation?  Who was in charge?

This question has puzzled scientists too, so last year a team in Budapest decided to find out more by attaching GPS backpacks to a flock of domestic homing pigeons.  The GPS units recorded the birds’ position every 0.2 seconds as they flew home or wheeled around the neighborhood.  The data was then used to plot the birds’ paths and figure out where each bird flew in relationship to the others and how quickly it changed direction in response to the rest of the flock. 

The results were quite interesting.  The flocks’ leaders almost always fly in the front and the other birds copy the leader’s movements within 0.4 seconds.  The low ranking birds fly behind and to the right but leadership can change and even low-ranking birds occasionally get the chance to lead.  This confirms my hunch that the leaders end up at the back of the flock sometimes.

Why do the low-ranking birds fly behind and to the right?  The researchers’ theory is that this position maximizes their ability to follow the leader.  These birds use their left eyes to watch the leader, left-eye information is processed by the right side of the brain, and the right side of the brain is best at quickly handling social responses. 

Why does the flock change leadership?  How does it hand off leadership so deftly?  The study didn’t answer all my questions but it’s a great start.  Read more about it here in Science Magazine.  

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

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