Archive for the 'Musings & News' Category

Jan 16 2015

Make The Best Suet

Published by under Musings & News

Blue jays and red-bellied woodpecker eat at the suet log (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Backyard birds need high-calorie food when the weather is harsh.  Did you know you can “cook” for the birds?

Marcy Cunkelman has a favorite No-melt Peanut Butter Suet recipe that’s a real bird-pleaser and well worth trying.

The recipe has a long and famous history in our area.  Scott Shalaway calls it The Best Suet recipe and has been telling folks about it on his radio show since 2005.  He credits Martha Sargent in Alabama for passing it along to him.  Julie Zickefoose, from southern Ohio, has a similar recipe called “Zick Dough” that omits the sugar and adds chick starter.

Marcy makes Scott’s version and loads it into holes drilled in old logs.  (The blue jays, above, are waiting for her to reload the holes.)  You can also offer it on trays or in suet cages. The secret is real lard — not substitutes.

No-melt Peanut Butter Suet Recipe (from Martha Sargent in Alabama)
Melt 1 cup of lard and 1 cup of crunchy peanut butter in microwave or over low heat in a kettle. Stir, then add:
2 cups of quick cook oats
2 cups yellow cornmeal
1 cup of flour
1/3 cup of sugar

Pour into square containers and freeze for your suet holders or load into a suet log or even spread on a tree trunk.

Red-bellied woodpecker ready to eat Marcy's homemade suet that's rubbed on a tree trunk (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

We’re heading into a warming trend but winter is still with us so there’s plenty of time to “get cooking.”


Note this caveat from Julie Zickefoose:  Julie used to feed her birds Zick Dough all year long but the bluebirds got gout from it!  (Yes, even birds can get gout from a rich diet.)  The bluebirds recovered when she stopped feeding them suet in the non-winter months.  Here’s her recipe and warning at Birdwatcher’s Digest.

(photos by Marcy Cunkelman)


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Jan 09 2015

Rocks With Pizzazz

Published by under Musings & News

Willemite-Franklinite-Rhodonite in normal light, Sterling Mine, Ogdensburg, NJ (photo by Rob Lavinsky, – CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

(photo by Rob Lavinsky, – CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

To a novice like me, this rock is interesting because of its shape and color, but I would never have found its photo if it hadn’t had pizzazz.

It’s a rare and valuable specimen of Willemite, Franklinite and Rhodonite. Mineralogists can tell you that Franklinite pinpoints its origin right down to a single county — Sussex County, New Jersey — the only place on earth where Franklinite is found. This rock came from the Sterling Mine at Ogdensburg.

But that’s not what I mean about pizzazz.

Back in October at the Wissahickon Nature Club we learned about fluorescent minerals from Harlan Clare who showed us many samples under normal and “black” light.  What really impressed me is that a boring rock can display amazing colors if the mineral is fluorescent.

Expose this rock to ultraviolet light and it bursts into glowing green and orange!

Willemite-Franklinite-Rhodonite under ultraviolet light from the Sterling Mine, Ogdensburg, NJ (photo by Rob Lavinsky, – CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

(photo by Rob Lavinsky, – CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


Most rocks look boring in normal light so how did people figure out that some of them glow?

At a rock mine the ore sits out in the sun for a while after it’s pulled from underground. If you take a fluorescent rock back into the dark mine, it glows because it was exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet light.  Sir George Gabriel Stokes named this fluorescence in 1852 when he described why fluorite glows.

So now when you see a basket of boring rocks for sale, think of the possibilities.  When you know what you’re looking at you can find one with a hidden punch.  Harlan Clare carries a small UV flashlight so he can preview the rocks before he buys.

Some rocks are like willets.  They’re boring until they open their wings.


(photos of Willemite, Franklinite, Rhodonite from the Sterling Mine, Sterling Hill, Ogdensburg, New Jersey (George Elling Collection) by Rob Lavinsky, – CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

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Dec 30 2014

Champagne And Rain

Published by under Musings & News

Bubbles in a glass of champagne (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

While toasting the holiday with a glass of champagne I wondered, Why do champagne bubbles rise from one point on the glass?

This led to the discovery that champagne and rain have something in common.  And it isn’t that they’re both wet.

Champagne is carefully fermented under pressure so that carbon dioxide is absorbed into the liquid.  When you open a bottle of champagne the CO2 is released.   This can be beautiful or boring depending on the glass you use.

The bubbles perform badly in a plastic ‘glass’ (they won’t rise off the sides) and best in a tall thin champagne flute because it concentrates them into less surface area.  They will rise from a single point where there’s a dust mote in the liquid or a tiny nick inside the glass.  For this reason some glass makers purposely put tiny scratches in the bottoms of their champagne glasses to make bubble patterns.

What do champagne and rain have in common?

Champagne bubbles form around dust motes or nicks in the glass.  Raindrops form when water vapor condenses around tiny dust motes in the cloud.

Champagne and rain both use a tiny “flaw” to get them going.


Click here to read more about the science of champagne at Deutsch Welle.  Click here to read more about how rain forms at the American Physical Society.

(photo in the public domain from Wikimedia Commons, enhanced to highlight the bubbles.)

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Dec 16 2014

Socially Isolated? Age Faster

African grey parrot (photo by Keith Allison from Wikimedia Commons)

Early this month I wrote how lobsters don’t age because they have telomerase that repairs the DNA sequences at the ends of their chromosomes (telomeres).   Most adult organisms don’t have that advantage so every time our cells divide our telomeres get shorter.  This ages our cells and ages us.

African grey parrots are highly social creatures who are often stressed when they live alone.  It turns out that loneliness affects their telomeres.

In a study published last spring in PLOS ONE, scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine at Vienna, Austria examined blood samples from captive African grey parrots and compared the telomeres of parrots who lived alone versus those who lived with a companion parrot. (*)

Despite being the same age, solo African grey parrots had noticeably shorter telomeres than those who lived with friends.  The solo parrots aged faster than their peers.

Not only did the study illuminate the sadness of single parrots but it suggests that “telomeres may provide a biomarker for assessing exposure to social stress.”

Read more here in Science Daily.

Humans are social creatures, too.  Doctors and nurses know that isolated humans don’t heal as fast or live as long, so when you’re sick it helps to have the care of those who love you … which leads me to an update on my husband’s recovery (see this blog post for news of his accident).

Today it’s been three weeks since Rick was hit by a car in a crosswalk.  He’s making progress though there are setbacks, such as the operation to fix his broken nose.  Fortunately his friends and relatives have rallied to help him (and me).  Rick is a very social creature — more social than I am — so calls and visits from his sister and friends have raised his spirits.

For now my life is circumscribed by his needs and appointments.  I miss birding and hiking alone (I’m not as social as Rick) but I try to go outdoors every day because that’s what keeps me sane.

We are hoping for good long telomeres when this is over.  😉


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

(*) The parrot news release notes that in Austria it’s illegal to keep a parrot in isolation from other parrots, though some people do.

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Dec 11 2014

TBT: Ubiquitous Human Noise

Aldo Leopold at his Salk County shack, around 1940 (photo from Univ of Wisconsin Digital Archives)

Aldo Leopold at his Salk County shack, around 1940 (photo courtesy UW Digital Archives)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT) to October 2012:

Imagine listening to birds without the sounds of human activity in the background.

In 2012 ecologists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison recreated a soundscape from Aldo Leopold’s time without today’s background noise of vehicles, airplanes, boats, trains and tools.

Click here to read more and hear what it’s like to escape our ubiquitous human noise.


(photo of Aldo Leopold, courtesy UW Digital Archives)


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Dec 02 2014

Biological Immortality

Published by under Musings & News

Male and female red lobsters (illustration by Francis Hobart Herrick via Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know that there’s such a thing as biological immortality?  That the mortality rate in some species does not increase with age?

Most plants and animals experience senescence, an age-related functional deterioration that also occurs on the micro scale. Cells progressively lose their ability to divide and grow properly.

There are some notable exceptions to this rule including hydras, a species of jellyfish, planarian flatworms and lobsters.

Lobsters achieve biological immortality by expressing telomerase through most of their tissue, even as adults. Telomerase is the enzyme that repairs the DNA sequences at the ends of the chromosomes so that when a cell divides it doesn’t lose any information.  Human fetuses have telomerase but we don’t have it as adults.  Lobsters always have it so they never age.

Despite their immortality, predation or an accident can end a lobster’s life.   Accidents come to mind right now because …

On Tuesday November 25, 2014, just before 4:00pm, my husband was hit by a car while he crossed Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill — he was in a crosswalk! and the car had a stop sign!   He has 9 broken ribs on his right side, a broken nose, bruises, a concussion and (had at first) a partially collapsed right lung. After six days in UPMC Presbyterian Hospital, at first in the ICU then in the trauma wing, he came home late yesterday for the long, painful, healing process.  We are thankful his injuries were not worse.

In an accident, it doesn’t matter if you’re biologically immortal.


(illustration by Francis Hobart Herrick via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

p.s.  You may be thinking, “How can she blog while this is going on?”  Answer: Birds and nature are what keep me sane.

p.p.s. Thank you, Lydia, Wes, Brittny, Amanda and Erin for such excellent care while my husband was in the hospital.

UPDATE, MAY 2015:   My husband has recovered from his injuries and is back to normal. His broken bones healed fast.  We were amazed at how long it took his concussion to heal.

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Oct 28 2014

From T-Rex To Hummingbirds

Chart of dinosaur-to-bird evolution (illustration by Steve Brusatte)

Ancient birds have a new family tree.

In a report last month in Current Biology researchers at University of Edinburgh and Swarthmore College analyzed 850 body features of 150 dinosaurs, then used statistical analysis to assemble a detailed family tree from dinosaurs to birds.

Interestingly, they found that the evolution of bird characteristics in dinosaurs was very gradual and non-linear.  Features like feathers, wings and wishbones appeared in many species over tens of millions of years so there is no “missing link” dinosaur line to the first bird.

“This process was so gradual that if you traveled back in time to the Jurassic, you’d find that the earliest birds looked indistinguishable from many other dinosaurs,” said Swarthmore statistician Stephen Wang.

And then, 150 million years ago the bird skeleton came together and bang! there was an explosion in species from the one-of-a-kind hoatzin to more than 350 species of hummingbirds.  According to Science Daily, this explosion “supports a controversial theory proposed in the 1940s that the emergence of new body shapes in groups of species could result in a surge in their evolution.”

Read more here in Science Daily about the family tree.

Most kids go through a dinosaur-loving phase.  Some of us fall in love with birds and never come out of it.  😉


(diagram by Stephen L. Brusatte, University of Edinburgh. Click on the image to see the original.)


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Oct 13 2014

What If…?

Published by under Musings & News

Portraits: Christopher Columbus, Passenger pigeon (images from Wikimedia Commons)

This year’s remembrance of the passenger pigeon is, for me, inextricably linked to Christopher Columbus.

Last year I read a book that generated that association.  1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus describes what North America was like before and after Columbus’ arrival.

Before Columbus, the human population in the Americas was larger than Europe’s and the landscape, animals and birds were balanced by the pressure of so many people.  Europeans arrived and accidentally left behind pigs carrying human disease.  Native Americans, who had no immunity to European disease, encountered the free-range pigs and spread the plagues through human contact.

The Western Hemisphere suddenly lost 95% of its human population in only 150 years.  Remove the keystone species and you get some pretty weird results.  European settlers didn’t see the transformation so they thought what they found was normal including the endless forest, huge bison herds and billions of passenger pigeons.

So I wonder …

If Native Americans had not died off, would passenger pigeons have boomed at all?

If there hadn’t been so many passenger pigeons, would we have hunted them to extinction?

What if?


(Two photos from Wikimedia Commons: portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519.  Digital painting of the extinct Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius by Tim Hough.)

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Oct 07 2014

Water Cuts Rock

Published by under Musings & News

Kiskiminetas River at Roaring Run near Apollo, PA (photo by Kate St. John)

Amazing as it seems none of the hills in the Pittsburgh Low Plateau were ever mountains.  They were all made by water cutting rock.

When dinosaurs roamed the earth, Pittsburgh was at the shore of a shallow inland sea to our west.  At the time our soil was composed of sandy beaches, mudflats and swamps. The sand became sandstone, the mud became shale, and the decayed swamp plants became coal.

No geologic events deformed our rocks.  To our east the Appalachians slammed into the edge of the plateau and pushed up the Allegheny Mountains.  To our north the retreat of the glaciers made the land rise in a bounce-back from the pressure release.  Our plateau remained essentially flat, tilting slightly to the south and west.  Indeed the rock layers in our area are horizontal.  You can see this at highway road cuts.

But Pittsburgh doesn’t look flat.

Water transformed us, cutting dendritic paths in the landscape as it drained to the inland sea (now the Gulf of Mexico). The paths became deep valleys.  When you stand in a valley you see hills.

Vegetation now hides what happened to the land. You see the hills but none of the water cuts as shown in this view of the Kiskiminetas (Kiski) River at the mouth of Roaring Run.

Take a short hike up Roaring Run and see what water can do.

Water cuts rick at Roaring Run, Armstrong County (photo by Kate St. John)

Here the creek is carving a notch in weak shale.  The valley walls are steep and narrow.  The notch is big enough to wade in.

Eventually Roaring Run may look like the Kiski with tree-covered hills.

It all comes from water cutting rock.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Sep 15 2014

In Steep Decline

Published by under Musings & News

Herring Gull (photo by Shawn Collins)

Last week I learned something new.  Did you know that herring gulls are in steep decline?

On Thursday Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology published the 2014 State of the Birds Report in honor of Martha, the last living passenger pigeon who died 100 years ago this month.  The report heralds the great conservation successes of the past 100 years — bald eagles, wood ducks, Kirtland’s warbler, brown pelicans — and warns of species currently in decline that need our attention.

Especially interesting is the list of 33 common birds in steep decline.  According to the report, “These birds have lost more than half their global population. All of these species combined have lost hundreds of millions of breeding individuals over the past four decades.”  We know from the passenger pigeon’s experience that steep decline can quickly lead to extinction so these birds are the ones to help right now.

Many are those I’ve written about in the past — common nighthawks, snow buntings, rusty blackbirds, common grackles — but the herring gull was a real surprise.   How can this species be threatened when we see them everywhere at the shore and the mall?

It turns out that herring gulls nearly went extinct in the 1880’s because of market hunting but made a stunning comeback to 100,000 birds by the 1980’s, thanks in part to humans’ wasteful ways (coastal refuse dumps and fishing boat waste).  Then the tide started to turn.  78% of the herring gull population has disappeared in the last 40 years.  Who knew?

There are plenty of birds who need our help.  Click here for the full report.  We can do it!

And here’s the list of 33 Common Species in Steep Decline.  You’ll find some surprises.


(photo by Shawn Collins)

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