Nov 20 2015

A Stinky Surprise

Last Friday I showed how bored birds can cause car trouble.  This week another bird — who isn’t bored at all! — creates a future mess.

In the video above, a common raven at the Juneau, Alaska airport decides to cache a bit of salmon in the grill of a rental car.  He flips it and hides it in various spots in the grill.

The video’s author says the raven is hiding food from his own reflection and challenging himself when he pecks at the window.

I’m not so sure he’s confused by his reflection  … but no matter what this raven is thinking the next person to rent the car will be in for a stinky surprise!


(video from YouTube. Click on the YouTube logo to see the details)

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Nov 19 2015

What to Expect Outdoors Through Mid December

Published by under Phenology

Snow bunting (photo by Chuck Tague)

Snow bunting (photo by Chuck Tague)

Today is Throw Back Thursday with a twist: I’m looking back to a phenology list that predicts the future.

What can we expect outdoors in the next 4-6 weeks?

My list from 2008 was based on our normal weather for late November and early December but the Earth is experiencing a strong El Niño this year.

Will the old predictions will hold true or will they be delayed?

Click here for What To Look For Through Mid-December and compare the predictions as time unfolds.


(photo of a Snow Bunting by Chuck Tague)

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Nov 18 2015

Ravens Console Each Other

A pair of ravens in Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A pair of ravens in Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We’ve all seen it happen.  Two people fight in public, perhaps with only words and innuendo.   When the fight is over, some of the bystanders console the victim.

This kind of consoling is a rare trait among species, especially when those involved have no pair bond.  Humans and chimpanzees exhibit “affiliation behavior” but we thought it didn’t happen among birds until a 2010 report in PLOS One showed that ravens do it, too.

The Konrad Lorenz Research Station in Austria studies behavioral ecology and animal cognition, often focusing on the ravens whom they house on site.  For the 2010 study, Orlaith N. Fraser and Thomas Bugnyar worked with a group of 13 young hand-raised ravens, some of whom were related.

Ravens live in dynamic social groups so, inevitably, fights break out.  For two years the researchers tracked the winners, losers, and bystanders, and the intensity of the fights.  The data showed that bystander ravens console the losers with whom they have a relationship — more so if the fight was intense.  Sometimes the bystanders step in without being asked, sometimes the victims seek consolation.   Interestingly, the fights were more likely to stop when the victim sought consolation from friends.

The study concluded that “ravens may be sensitive to the emotions of others.”

Of course they are.

Click here to read more at PLOS One.


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

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Nov 17 2015

Eye Color Is All That Matters

Published by under Songbirds

Dark-eyed Junco, January 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Dark-eyed Junco in western PA, January 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

The juncos are back in town and, even if they don’t match each other, I can assure you they’re all dark-eyed juncos.

This wasn’t always the case. When I was young there were seven kinds of juncos: white-winged, Oregon, slate-colored, gray-headed, Guadalupe, Mexican and Baird’s. In Pittsburgh we normally saw slate-colored juncos and were very excited when an Oregon junco showed up.

Then in 1983 the American Ornithological Union (AOU) determined that despite plumage differences there are really only two species:  dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) and yellow-eyed junco (Junco phaeonotus).  The others are subspecies.

Dark eyed juncos range from Alaska and Canada down to Mexico.  Yellow-eyed juncos are found only in Mexico, southern Arizona and southern New Mexico.

Here’s a bird in New Mexico with dark eyes that would have been called an “Oregon junco.”

Dark-eyed junco in New Mexico (photo by Steve Valasek)

Dark-eyed junco in New Mexico (photo by Steve Valasek)

And here’s a yellow-eyed junco in Tucson.

Yellow-eyed junco (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yellow-eyed junco in Tucson, Arizona (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

So when you see an odd-looking junco don’t worry that his feathers don’t match the other birds.  Check his eyes.  Eye color is all that matters when identifying a junco.


(photos of dark-eyed juncos by Cris Hamilton and Steve Valasek. photo of yellow-eyed junco from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

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Nov 16 2015

Tree Sparrows Are Misnamed

Eurasian tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Eurasian tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Names are so confusing!

This bird looks like a house sparrow (Passer domesticus) but he’s not.  He’s a Eurasian tree sparrow and he’s the reason why our tree sparrows are called American tree sparrows.

Eurasian tree sparrows (Passer montanus) are native to Europe and Asia (of course) but about 15,000 of them live in the St. Louis area now.  In the 1870’s, 12 were imported from Germany and established a breeding population but they were never as successful as their aggressive cousins.

Passer montanus is 10% smaller than a house sparrow, has a brown (not gray) head, and a black ear patch.  Males and females look alike and the juveniles are just duller versions of the same.

Eurasian tree sparrows are doubly misnamed.  They nest in holes in buildings, not in trees, and they don’t live in the mountains but they have “tree” and “montanus” in their names.  That’s because house sparrows dominate the cities of Europe and pushed this sparrow to live in the open countryside where there are trees.  In Asia the “tree” sparrow lives in cities.

American tree sparrows are misnamed, too.  European settlers thought Spizella arborea resembled the Eurasian tree sparrow so they called ours “American tree sparrows” even though ours spend the winter in scrubby places, not trees, and breed and forage on the ground.

Do you think the American tree sparrow below looks like the Eurasian one above?  I don’t.

American tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

American tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alas, they are all misnamed.


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

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Nov 15 2015

The Resurrection Plant

Published by under Plants

Unfolding of Selaginella lepidophylla when watered; time span 3 hours (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Unfolding of Selaginella lepidophylla when watered; time span 3 hours (image from Wikimedia Commons)

On the way to somewhere else I found …

A desert plant that curls into a ball and “hibernates” during dry weather, then revives at the touch of water.

You’ll never see this plant in Pennsylvania unless you buy one as a novelty item to wow your friends.

Selaginella lepidophylla is a spikemoss native to the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico and the southwestern U.S. with many common names including false rose of Jericho, rose of Jericho, resurrection plant, resurrection moss, and doradilla.  Its resurrection ability is similar to the real Rose of Jericho, Anastatica, native to the Middle East and Sahara.

How long does it take this plant to revive?  The photos were snapped at five minute intervals over a period of three hours.

I stumbled upon this animation while searching for photos of Lycopodium because a second (synonymous) scientific name for the resurrection plant is Lycopodium lepidophyllum

Who knew!


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

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Nov 14 2015

Have You Seen One Yet?

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

American tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

American tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the past few weeks winter sparrows have arrived in western Pennsylvania.  We’ve seen dark-eyed juncos, white-throated, white-crowned, and fox sparrows … but I haven’t heard of American tree sparrows yet.

American tree sparrows (Spizella arborea) breed in Canada and Alaska and spend the winter in weedy snow-covered fields and backyards in the Lower 48 states, though not as far south as Florida.

When they do show up they can be confusing.  They resemble chipping sparrows except for a black dot in the center of their chests and a two-tone bill.  (Notice the yellow lower mandible and the dull brown upper mandible.) The two don’t mix though. Chipping sparrows are usually gone by the time the tree sparrows get here.

Watch for the arrival of this same-but-different bird.

Have you seen an American tree sparrow yet?


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

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Nov 13 2015

Beware The Bored Bird


When highly intelligent birds are bored, watch out!

Keas (Nestor notabilis) are wild parrots on the South Island of New Zealand who love to explore and use their sharp beaks to open whatever they find. They’re not kept as pets because they literally will take your house apart.

Watch them take apart the police car.


Pet parrots invent similar projects when they’re bored. Give them something to do or they’ll destroy the woodwork!


p.s. This article was spawned by Ted Floyd’s mention of keas and Jack Solomon’s post of the police car video on Facebook. Thanks!

(video from YouTube)

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Nov 12 2015

A Late Fall

Flock of ducks (photo by Brian Herman)

Flock of ducks (photo by Brian Herman)

It seems to me that fall is late this year.

The leaves were late to change color and stayed on the trees longer than expected, temperatures last week were 15 degrees above normal, and the ducks are late arriving from the north.  In my city neighborhood we haven’t had a really hard frost yet.

Have you noticed this, too?

A strong El Niño is warming the northern U.S. and southern Canada this fall.  Without ice forming on the northern lakes, waterfowl have no compelling reason to come south.  When do you think the big flocks will arrive?

For a good explanation of this year’s El Niño and the Winter 2015-2016 forecast, click here at The Weather Channel.


(photo by Brian Herman)

p.s. Here’s what the El Niño looks like in an image from There’s a big warm spot in the Pacific Ocean and another one off the coast of California.

Seas surface temperature anomaly, Oct 11 - Nov 7, 2015 (image from

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Nov 11 2015

We Need A Makeover

Published by under Peregrines

Two peregrines visit the Gulf Tower nest, confirmed to be Louie and Dori, Nov 9, 2015 (photo by Ann Hohn)

Louie and Dori visit the Gulf Tower nest, 9 Nov 2015 (photo by Ann Hohn)

On Monday afternoon Ann Hohn at Make-A-Wish heard a pair of peregrine falcons conversing at the unused Gulf Tower nest.

When she looked through the blinds she found Dori gazing at the nest and Louie watching her reaction.  Ann sent me this photo and wrote:

Louie is on the far left (it’s definitely him; I saw his tags). Dori is on the right (tags are green3/top and blackM/bottom).  Chirping like crazy. That’s how I knew they were here. And then they were gone.

Here’s what Dori was looking at:  Some very healthy weeds!

Weeds at the Gulf Tower nest as of Nov 10, 2015 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Weeds at the Gulf Tower nest as of Nov 10, 2015 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Perhaps she was thinking, “This is OK, but it needs a makeover.”

Art McMorris, Peregrine Coordinator for the PA Game Commission, says the thriving weeds indicate the gravel isn’t draining any more and that’s bad for keeping peregrine eggs dry.  More than just weeding, the site needs new gravel.  He says the Game Commission will replace the gravel soon.



(photo by Ann Hohn)

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