Whattaya Think?

screenshot from video of YouTube Stella the starling

26 February 2021

Stella was a European starling who was rescued when she fell out of her nest in St. Louis. Her rescuer, Rebecca B, was unable to return Stella to the nest (too high up) so she took care of the bird, planning to return her to the wild when she was old enough to survive on her own.

Rebecca B wrote in September 2015: “Well, that didn’t really work out as planned. Stella quickly became very attached and more of a pet than a wild bird. It became very clear she wasn’t suited to live outside in the wild when she began to talk and say “stella is a pretty bird” at only 4 months old! The whistles followed quickly.. and she hasn’t stopped learning.”

This week I wrote a lot about starlings. … Whattaya think?

p.s. In the U.S., European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are an invasive alien species and are not protected as native birds are. That means starlings, unlike native birds, can be kept as pets without a permit.

(from Stella the Starling on YouTube)

Songbirds Fight

Two female common starlings fighting in D.C, 9 April 2013 (photo by Angela N via Flickr Creative Commons license)

25 February 2021

As winter ends and spring arrives, songbirds work hard to claim territory and mates. They usually sing to warn away competitors but sometimes sound is not enough. They resort to fury.

Though songbirds are small and seem powerless they resemble their dinosaur ancestors when they fight. The action looks vicious but they move so fast that it’s hard to capture on camera.

Above, two female (European) common starlings fight on the lawn at the Library of Congress in April 2013. Below, carrion crows fight in London in 2021.

Eastern bluebirds are normally gentle but not when they fight for a mate as photographed by Karen DeSantis in 2014. Click here to see a slideshow of the bluebird fight.

Eastern bluebird fight (photo by Karen DeSantis)
Male bluebirds fighting, 2014 (photo by Karen DeSantis)

Sometimes a bird mistakes his own reflection for a rival and goes all out against a mirror. This American robin fought his reflection at Charlie Hickey’s house in 2013.

Robin fighting his reflection (photo by Charlie Hickey)
Robin fighting his reflection (photo by Charlie Hickey)

Songbird skirmishes usually end quickly. Otherwise someone will get hurt!

(photos from Angela N via Flickr Creative Commons license, Karen DeSantis and Charlie Hickey; click on the captions to see the originals)

A Chunk of Comet Killed the Dinosaurs

Incoming! The event that killed the dinosaurs (screenshot from Harvard University video)

24 February 2021

Ever since the early 1980s when Luis and Walter Alvarez discovered that the Chicxulub Crater in the Yucatan and the extinction of the dinosaurs were caused by the same event, we’ve talked about the “asteroid” that killed the dinosaurs. Recently two Harvard researchers took a new look at the composition of Chicxulub rocks and the physics of comet behavior and revised that conclusion. It wasn’t an asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. It was a chunk of comet!

Asteroids live in the main belt of the inner solar system located between Mars and Jupiter. Comets are from the Oort cloud of interstellar space.

Logarithmic scale distance of the Oort Cloud from the rest of the Solar System. Voyager 1 location in 2013 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The video below explains how a piece of comet could break off and cause the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction … and how soon one could hit us again. By the way, Jupiter is involved.

Yow! Oh no!

Illustration of an unusual association of hadrosaur and therizinosaur from tracks found in Denali National Park, Alaska (illustration by Karen Carr via Wikimedia Commons)

A chunk of comet killed the big dinosaurs. Fortunately we still have the little ones with us … Birds!

(screenshot at top from Harvard University video, remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Changing Into Summer Clothes

Common starlings in non-breeding and breeding plumage (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

23 February 2021

Cold weather will end soon in Pittsburgh with a high tomorrow of 50 degrees F but even if the cold returns we know spring is on the way by observing our starlings.

In February starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) start changing into breeding plumage from spotted brown with dark beak and legs (left above) into iridescent glossy black with yellow beak and bright orange legs (right). From what I’ve seen, the beak starts first.

Even now, before they change into breeding plumage, they start to sing their wiry song.

By the end of March they’ll be wearing summer clothes, singing and flapping to attract a mate.

How far along are your starlings? Do they have yellow beaks yet?

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption links to see the originals)

Identifying Ecco and Morela

  • Ecco, male (21 Feb 2021, 9:13)

22 February 2021

The unbanded male peregrine, Ecco, has been present every day at the Cathedral of Learning since 4 February — 19 days in a row — while the former resident male, Terzo, has not been seen since 5 February. With this kind of track record I believe that Ecco has won the site and is now the resident male.

Now that Ecco is present every day and neither he nor his mate Morela are banded how do we tell them apart? Here are some tips, photos and videos to help you compare and identify each bird.

Size: Male peregrines are 1/3 smaller than females. The slideshows display Ecco and Morela in similar poses. Morela is always the bigger bird. Check the captions if you are unsure.

  • Ecco

The easiest way to determine size is to compare the bird to the size of the enclosure or camera view. How long is the bird compared to the available space? Morela is longer. Does the bird look bulky? Morela is bulkier.

Coloration: Morela’s breast and face are peach-colored where Ecco is white.

The videos below will give you practice identifying them on camera.

Ecco alone at the nest, 21 Feb 2021

Morela alone at the nest, 21 Feb 2021

The more we watch them the better we’ll get at identifying each one. My hope is that Ecco and Morela stay at the Cathedral of Learning for many years to come.

(photos and videos from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Goose Barnacles, Barnacle Geese

Goose barnacles, Lepas anatifera (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 February 2021

Goose barnacles often attach themselves to old wood and float from tropical seas to northern shores including the shores of Britain. The barnacles pictured here and in the video below are Lepas anatifera. Their bodies are supported by a long, flexible stalk (a peduncle) that resembles a goose neck. 

Goose barnacles and barnacle geese have similar names because people linked them to explain where the geese came from.

Every fall barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) migrate to Britain and the east coast of the North Sea where they spend the winter. Those in Britain arrive from their breeding grounds in Greenland.

Barnacle geese (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the Middle Ages people didn’t know that birds migrate so they worked to explain the sudden appearance of full grown geese that they never saw nesting. Their explanation was that goose barnacles floated to shore, took root, and produced a tree that produced barnacle geese. This notion persisted for hundreds of years, from at least the 12th to 16th centuries.

Barnacle Geese. Facsimile of an Engraving on Wood, from the “Cosmographie Universelle” of Munster, folio, Basle, 1552

Nowadays that story sounds silly but we shouldn’t be too smug. We still create stories to explain things we don’t understand and spread them quickly on the Internet. In the future our fantastical stories will sound silly, too. I can think of a few about the coronavirus.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Was The Close-up Worth It?

Striped skunk, Cokeville Meadows NWR, Wyoming, Sept 2015 (photo by K. Theule/ USFWS)

This is not my story but it’s a good one.

In September 2015 K. Theule of the US Fish and Wildlife Service was in the office at Cokeville Meadows NWR, Wyoming when she saw a skunk outside the window. She picked up her camera and …

Sometimes as a photographer, I don’t make the wisest decisions. Usually it’s a light or angle or exposure mishap. However, today my risk assessment wasn’t fully completed before I poked my head out the office door. After pressing the shutter a few times I was left wondering if the smell was going to last. But who can resist a skunk only 10 feet in front of your office door?! Just a warning to any visitors this week – the Cokeville Meadows office might stink a bit for the next few days.

description of skunk photo by K. Theule on Flickr, USFWS Mountain-Prairie

“Worth the stink? Still not sure…”

Worth the stink? Still not sure … (photo by K. Theule/ USFWS)

(photos by K. Theule/USFWS via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Raccoon Redux

Bald eagle pair scares off raccoon approaching their nest, 17 Feb 2021 (screenshot from PixCams on YouTube)

19 February 2021

On Wednesday night, 17 February just after 7pm, a raccoon scaled one of the branches that holds the Hays bald eagle nest. The mother eagle was on the nest and heard the raccoon coming so she rose up, spread her wings, and scared him away.

Seven years ago a raccoon intruder did the same thing. This one was a little braver.

The raccoon hid nearby, frozen in place, but four minutes later he moved again and the father eagle arrived to help. Two eagles!! The raccoon finally left.

This week’s episode was a raccoon redux of …

See Mary Ann Thomas’ Trib Live report, Pittsburgh Hays Bald Eagles Attack Raccoon Intruder, with video of Wednesday’s raccoon leaving.

Watch the Hays Nest Eaglecam to see what happens next.

(screenshot from PixCams on YouTube)

UPDATE, 19 Feb 2021: The female bald eagle at Hays laid her 3rd egg on 19 February 2021.

UPDATE, 22 Feb 2021: On the night of 22 Feb 2021 a great horned owl knocked the male Hays bald eagle off his roosting perch. The eagle was surprised but unharmed.

Who Is Most Numerous?

Girl holding 2-month-old chicken (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

18 February 2021

Which bird species is the most numerous on earth? It depends on what you’re counting. All birds? Or just wild birds?

For all birds, the domestic chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) wins the prize with 25.9 billion as of 2019.

Hen and chicks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Chickens live on every continent except Antarctica as shown on the map below. (Gray indicates absence. Yellow to brown shows increasing density.)

Worldwide distribution of domestic chickens, gray=absent (gray added to map from “Mapping the Global Distribution of Livestock”, PLOS ONE, 2014)

Compare the chicken map to human population density and you’ll see a correlation. There are 7.8 billion humans on earth as of March 2020.

Human population density, 2005 (map from Wikimedia Commons)

As for wild birds, the sparrow-sized red-billed quelea (Quelea quelea) is the most numerous with a population of 1.5 billion as of 2018.

Queleas live only in Africa and thrive best where human grain crops provide abundant food. Queleas correlate to humans too, but not nearly as much as chickens.

Distribution map of red-billed quelea (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Learn how chickens became the Most Numerous Bird On Earth in this 2014 vintage article (at the link).

(photos and maps from Wikimedia Commons and PLOS ONE; click on the captions to see the originals)

Butterflies Drink Turtle Tears

Butterflies drinking turtle tears (screenshot from Phil Torres YouTube video)

17 February 2021

In 2018 in the Peruvian Amazon Phil Torres of The Jungle Diaries filmed colorful butterflies fluttering around turtles at the edge of the Tambopata River. He explains what the butterflies were doing:

Learn more about this phenomenon in Phil Torres’ video: Butterflies drinking Turtle Tears!?

One commenter wrote: “So if I cry, will butterflies come to me?”

(screenshot from Phil Torres Jungle Diaries video)