Sep 28 2016

Bad Flu is Not Our Fault

Flock of ducks (photo by Brian Herman)

Flock of ducks (photo by Brian Herman)

Right now it’s flu shot season, soon to be followed by flu season itself from December to March.

Wild birds have been blamed as a source of influenza but new evidence indicates they’re not the cause of bad flu.  To understand why here’s a primer on where flu comes from, how it spreads, and why flu season is in the winter.

Where does flu come from?

Other people!  It spreads best — and quickly creates new strains — where people are densely crowded.  Amazingly, the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918 spread quickly because of crowded camps and trenches in World War I.  A new study this month from the University of Chicago finds that “surveillance for developing new, seasonal vaccines should be focused on areas of east, south and southeast Asia where population size and community dynamics can increase transmission of endemic strains of the flu.”  Click here to read why flu does so well in that part of the world.

How does flu spreadIn the air.  We breathe it in.  Airborne transmission actually explains …

Why is flu season in the winter?

Not too long ago we were told that it’s in the winter because migratory waterfowl pass avian flu to domestic birds during fall migration.  Wrong!!

Recent studies of avian flu transmission show that it spreads in poultry factory farms (crowded conditions!) and along our poultry trade routes.  It follows our poultry, not wild birds’ migratory paths.

And the timing has nothing to do with migration.  Flu season is in the winter because the pathogen stays airborne longer in dry winter air.  It falls to the ground in summer humidity.

So why are waterfowl off the hook?

Wild birds aren’t spreading the worst strains of avian flu because they don’t have it.

After the H5 avian influenza A virus hit U.S. poultry farms in 2014-15, officials worried that avian flu would return when waterfowl migrated south again … but it didn’t.  The reason was found by researchers from St.Jude Children’s Research Hospital who “analyzed throat swabs and biological samples taken from 22,892 wild ducks and other aquatic birds collected before, during and after a 2014-15 H5 flu outbreak in poultry.”(*)  None of the birds had the highly pathogenic influenza A virus.

“Bad flu is not our fault,” say the ducks.

Read more here at: Evidence suggests migratory birds are not a reservoir for highly pathogenic flu viruses.


p.s.  Remember to get a flu shot!  However, if you’re over 65 immunologist Laura Haynes says you should get it after Halloween if you can.  Click here to read her advice on NPR.

(photo by Brian Herman)

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Sep 27 2016

He Eats Needles

Here’s a bird you’ll never see in Pennsylvania.

The spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis) is a resident of the northern forest in Canada, Maine, Minnesota and the northern Rockies.  Though he resembles our state bird, the ruffed grouse, his diet keeps him north of us.

In winter our ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) eats buds, twigs, catkins, ferns and fruit — easy food to find in Pennsylvania.

Not so the spruce grouse.  His winter diet is conifer needles.  They’re so hard to digest and he has to eat so many of them to stay alive that his digestive system changes in the fall.  According to Cornell’s All About Birds, his “gizzard grows by about 75 percent, and other sections of the digestive tract increase in length by about 40 percent.”  Before the snow falls he stocks up on grit so his gizzard can grind up the needles.

In September 2012 Sparky Stensaas found this spruce grouse swallowing road grit and feasting on a tamarack in northern Minnesota.  Tamaracks loose their needles in October so the grouse had to eat them right away.

This bird eats spruce needles, too.  That’s why he’s a spruce grouse.


Click here to see the video full screen and read Sparky’s description of what this grouse was up to.

(video by Sparky Stensaas)

* Tamaracks are larches, deciduous conifers whose needles turn yellow and drop in the fall.

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Sep 26 2016

Guess Who’s Coming To Visit

Published by under Migration

Red-breasted nuthatch (photo by Shawn Collins)

Red-breasted nuthatch (photo by Shawn Collins)

Guess who’s coming to visit our bird feeders this winter.

Every year Ron Pittaway analyzes the seed crop in Canada’s forest and predicts where northern finches and irruptive songbirds will spend the winter.  Last week he published his 2016 Winter Finch Forecast and the news is mixed.

Pittaway says the seed crop is poor this fall in southeastern Canada so many seed eaters will go west or north where the crop’s been good.  We won’t see crossbills this winter but three species are certain to move south: red-breasted nuthatches, blue jays and purple finches.

Red-breasted nuthatches (above) have already arrived in western Pennsylvania.  I saw one in my City neighborhood last week.

As for blue jays, we’re inundated with them in Pittsburgh especially in Schenley Park.

Blue Jay (photo by Chuck Tague)

Blue Jay (photo by Chuck Tague)


Purple finches have been reported in central Pennsylvania but I’m still waiting for my first one here in the west.

Purple finch (photo by Chuck Tague)

Purple finch (photo by Chuck Tague)

Keep your feeders filled and don’t be disappointed if you attract a lot of blue jays.  They’re visiting from Canada.  🙂


(Red-breasted nuthatch photo by Shawn Collins. Blue jay and purple finch photos by Chuck Tague)

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Sep 26 2016

Reminder: Clean Air Is For The Birds, Sept 30

Published by under Books & Events

Clean Air is For The Birds Just a reminder that this coming Friday is GASP’s Night at the Aviary, September 30, 6-9 pm.

As part of the festivities I’ll present a short talk on “Clean Air is for the Birds … and People Too.”

It’s a fundraiser so tickets are $50 to $65.  Click here for more information.

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Sep 25 2016

Schenley Park Outing Today, Sept 25

Published by under Books & Events

Participants at Schenley Park outing, 25 Sept 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Participants at Schenley Park outing, 25 Sept 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

The weather was great this morning — cool and sunny — as 16 of us explored Schenley Park.

We started at the Westinghouse Fountain, checked the Phipps Run valley behind it and walked part of the Steve Falloon Trail but there were almost no birds except for woodpeckers and blue jays.

I extended the walk to the golf course road where we added mourning doves, Carolina chickadees and an eastern phoebe (Best Bird).  Then to the Bartlett Shelter area where we added American goldfinches, common grackles and European starlings.  Here’s the bird checklist.

I was surprised by the abundance of mushrooms, especially Chicken-of-the-woods.

If we’d been out there counting chipmunks we’d have had a fantastic day.


(photo by Kate St. John)

p.s. All the thrushes were at Beechwood Farms in Fox Chapel.

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Sep 25 2016

The Lump Might Split

Published by under Songbirds

Yellow-rumped Warbler in spring (photo by Chuck Tague)

Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler in spring (photo by Chuck Tague)

If you’ve seen a yellow-rumped warbler in both eastern and western North America you might get a new Life Bird without doing anything.

Two weeks ago Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eNewsletter announced that the yellow-rumped warbler, a species that was lumped in 1973, might have to split — possibly even four ways!

If the split happens, the birds would probably use the names they had before the lumping.

Yellow-rumps in eastern North America, shown above, used to be called “myrtle warblers.”

Yellow-rumps in western North America, shown below, were “Audubon’s warbler.”

Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) warbler (photo by Steve Valasek)

Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warbler (photo by Steve Valasek)

These birds have different DNA and, happily for us, they look different.  Notice the yellow throat on the western bird.

Read about the possible four-way split and see their breeding range map at Goodbye Yellow-rump on the All About Birds blog.


(photo of yellow-rumped myrtle warbler by Chuck Tague, yellow-rumped Audubon’s warbler by Steve Valasek)

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Sep 24 2016

Its Beauty Is Microscopic

Published by under Plants

Pilewort flower heads and seeds (photo by Kate St. John)

Pilewort flower heads and seeds (photo by Kate St. John)

This week there’s a lot of fluff in the air from flowers gone to seed.  In my neighborhood it’s from a plant called American burnweed or pilewort that grows on burned sites and waste places.  It loves the urban setting.

Though it’s a native plant in the Aster family, pilewort (Erechtites hieraciifolius) is far from beautiful. Two to eight feet tall it looks very weedy, even ugly.  Each branch tip ends in a long green capsule that looks like a seed pod.

Pilewort plant (photo by Kate St. John)

Pilewort plant (photo by Kate St. John)

Are they seeds? No. I learned more when a bee paused to nectar on top of one.

A very close look revealed that the tip is a cluster of tiny flowers.

Individual pilewort flower (photo by Kate St. John)

Individual pilewort flower (photo by Kate St. John)

I opened the capsule and fanned its contents. Under magnification you can see the tiny white, almost translucent flowers with five petals, a protruding split pistil, and lavender centers.

They’re hard to photograph but here are two of my best attempts.

Individual pilewort flower capsule, opened and spread to shw the tiny flowers (photo by Kate St. John)

Individual pilewort flower capsule, spread to show the tiny flowers (photo by Kate St. John)


Individual pilewort flowers, spread out to show their details (photo by Kate St. John)

Individual pilewort flowers, spread out to show their details (photo by Kate St. John)

Most of the capsules have yellow tips.  Probably stamens, but even harder to see.

After the flowers are pollinated the green capsules split open and the long white filaments carry the seeds through the air.

Ugly from afar, pilewort’s beauty is microscopic.


(photos by Kate St.John)

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Sep 23 2016

Birds Take Flight Before Earthquake

Published by under Bird Behavior

Flock takes off (photo by Chuck Tague)

Flock takes off (photo by Chuck Tague)

In case you missed it early this month …

Oklahoma is a place that rarely had earthquakes until hydraulic fracking brought deep well injection to the state in 2009. Since then fracking disposal has awakened previously unknown fault lines with frequent and usually mild tremblors.

Then on 3 September at 7:02am a magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck Pawnee, 72 miles northeast of Oklahoma City as the crow flies.  And, yes, the crow flew.

The birds in the area somehow knew the earthquake was coming and took flight before it happened.  We know this because they appeared on Oklahoma City’s weather radar as an expanding cloud as much as 15 minutes before the quake!

See the radar image here and read more about birds’ extra earthquake sensors in the Washington Post.


p.s.  Residents on the ground at Pawnee weren’t so lucky. See the damage at Newson6.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Sep 22 2016

Catch Them From The Sky

Coast Guard Cutter Rush escorts the suspected high seas drift net fishing vessel Da Cheng in the North Pacific Ocean on August 14, 2012. (photo credit: U.S. Coast Guard)

Coast Guard Cutter Rush escorts suspected high seas drift net fishing vessel Da Cheng in the North Pacific Ocean on August 14, 2012 (photo from U.S. Coast Guard via NOAA)

After two days of sad stories about fish populations in decline here’s some hopeful news.

With sensible catch limits and sanctuaries where fishing is prohibited, we can turn the tide on ocean species decline — but only if we can enforce the laws.  Unfortunately the ocean is a huge place with few “cops on the beat” and a lot of places for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishermen to hide.

Until now.

Last week Oceana, SkyTruth, and Google launched the public Beta of Global Fishing Watch (GFW), a free online tool that allows anyone in the world to monitor and track the activities of the world’s largest commercial fishing vessels in near real-time.

Here’s how it works:  Every ship over a certain tonnage is required to transmit Automatic Identification System (AIS) data containing its identity, location, course and speed.  The data, received by satellites and accumulated since 2012, is used to plot each ship’s movements.  To determine which boats are fishing vessels, Global Fishing Watch developed an algorithm that identifies fishing by the characteristic patterns it makes on the map.

The map shows no-fish zones and Economic Exclusion Zones where it’s easy to see if illegal fishing is going on.  Vessels that turn off their AIS transmitters or purposely falsify their GPS data are automatically suspect.

Nations at the mercy of illegal fishing are happy to use GFW. In December 2014, when the tool was still in test mode, SkyTruth analyst Bjorn Bergman (from his desk in West Virginia!) saw a Taiwanese boat fishing illegally in Palau’s protected waters. And it turned off its AIS. The boat left Palau and headed for Indonesia.  When it returned in January Bergman remotely helped Palau authorities chase it down. Read the whole story here at the GFW blog.

So if you’re wondering how the U.S. will stop illegal fishing in 582,578 square miles of the newly expanded Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (surrounding the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands) the answer is:

We’ll catch them from the sky.

For more information, watch the video and visit the Global Fishing Watch website.

(video from Global Fishing Watch on YouTube)

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Sep 21 2016

Passenger Pigeon Of The Sea

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Pacific bluefin tuna, Kaiyukan Aquarium, Osaka, Japan (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pacific bluefin tuna, Kaiyukan Aquarium, Osaka, Japan (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today, a fish story.

Bluefin tuna are following the same trajectory as the passenger pigeon.  Because they taste good they’re poised to go extinct.

Atlantic (Thunnus thynnus) and Pacific bluefin tuna (Thunnis orientalis) are highly migratory predators that spawn on one side of their respective oceans and travel thousands of miles on migration to their feeding grounds.  When they reach maturity at three to five years old they return to spawn.  Bluefins can live 15 to 50 years and reach up to 990 pounds but because of overfishing very few live to maturity.

Like the passenger pigeon, human hunting pressure is the only reason for the bluefin’s decline.  Technological advances in deep sea fishing have made it easy to catch all of them.  Their meat is so prized in Japan for sushi and sashimi that the Pacific population has declined more than 97%.  Large specimens are so rare that according to the January 11, 2013 issue of TIME magazine, “Just last week, a 489-lb. bluefin was sold at a fish auction in Tokyo for a record $1.76 million—or about $3,600 per pound.”  That was nearly four years ago.  Their status has only gotten worse.

Like the final decades of the passenger pigeon, the bluefin’s plight has been discussed for years.  Catch limits for Atlantic bluefin have been in place since 2007 and it’s been nominated for endangered status.  In 2010 the World Wildlife Fund pointed out there was still so much over-capacity for Atlantic tuna fishing that EU boats reached their catch limit in only one week.  In 2011 Salon magazine asked, “Why are we still eating bluefin tuna?”  In 2014, the Center for Biodiversity called for a Pacific bluefin fishing ban.

This summer the situation became so dire that a dozen environmental groups called for listing the Pacific bluefin tuna as Endangered and the Pew Trusts called for a Pacific bluefin moratorium.

This Pew Trusts video explains how the Pacific moratorium, implemented immediately, would save the species.


We still have time to turn it around — but not much.

Will bluefin tuna go the way of the passenger pigeon … from billions to none?


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

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