Monthly Archives: May 2008

Meet me at the tent…

Schenley Plaza tent (photo by Kate St. John)…for Pitt Peregrine Fledge Watch!

Late next week the peregrine falcon chicks at University of Pittsburgh will be ready to fly (called fledging) and I’ll be there to watch them.

Fledging is the most dangerous time for a young peregrine. He flaps at the edge of a 400-foot drop and launches into the blue. He has to learn to steer and land on his very first voyage. If he doesn’t make it, he could land in the street.

Fledging is also the most exciting time for a peregrine watcher. The entire peregrine family is busy: the parents give flight demonstrations, the young walk the edge of the building and flap their wings, one of them takes his first flight and the parents follow to make sure he’s OK. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

The peregrine chicks are likely to fledge between June 7th and 9th so starting Thursday June 5th I plan to be at the Schenley Plaza tent before 8:15am, after 5:15pm, and during my lunch hour 1:30-2:30pm every day including the weekend. Fortunately, peregrines try not to fledge during bad weather so I get a reprieve if it’s raining.

You’re welcome to stop by for Fledge Watch. As with any hawk watch, there are stretches of boredom (opportunities to chat) punctuated by moments of excitement (peregrines flying). Unlike a rural hawk watch this one comes with amenities: a tent, indoor restrooms, free wireless Internet, places to buy food, and on-street parking.

Schenley Plaza is at the intersection of Schenley Drive and Forbes Ave across from the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. The tent (pictured above by my cellphone) is visible from Forbes Avenue. Click here for a Google street map.

How will you find me?  I’m the one near the tent wearing a hat and looking at the Cathedral of Learning with binoculars.

Empty nest?

Empty nest at Gulf Tower (from the National Aviary webcam)How about this! The nest at Gulf Tower looks empty.

The Gulf Tower peregrine chicks are due to fledge (fly for the first time) in the next few days, most likely between May 28 and May 31. The male will fly first, possibly a day or two before the female. Even though the nest looks empty at least one of them is probably here but out of camera range.

Fledge dates are very weather-dependent. The young birds try not to fledge during rain or high winds. Since today is clear and sunny, this may be the day the young male takes his first flight.

After first flight, the fledgling stays put and waits for mom or dad to bring food. The parents feed their young wherever they are – even if they are scattered among various places. If one bird fledges later than her siblings, those who fledged earlier sometimes return to the nest to cash in on parental food deliveries.

After everyone has flown for a day or two, they won’t return to the nest. It’s their baby crib and they don’t need it any more.

If you’re downtown, you may be able to see the young birds ledge-walking and exercising their wings. Stand near Penn Station and look up toward the top of the Gulf Tower at the side of the building facing you.

Peregrines' twilight feeding,  Gulf Tower, PittsburghEspecially examine the top floors with windows (not the stepped pyramid top of the building). You’ll know you’ve found the young peregrines if you see brown birds flapping their wings.

Watch for the adults delivering food to find out where a fledged chick has landed.

Update at 9:10pm: Tasha fed both chicks at 9:10pm on Wed May 28. Clearly, they haven’t left the nest yet.

Peregrine banding at University of Pittsburgh

Doug Dunkerley, PA Game Commission, holds a Pitt peregrine chick (photo by Kate St.John)On Tuesday morning the Pitt peregrine falcon chicks were banded – two males and one female. All of them received a clean bill of health and shiny new bracelets on their legs.

The cutie at left is one of the male chicks, held by Doug Dunkerley, PA Game Commission Wildlife Conservation Officer (WCO).

As usual the mother, Dorothy, was not happy that humans came to take her babies. She went on guard immediately and had to be captured for her safety.

Erin Estell of the National Aviary held Dorothy just as she held Tasha last week at the Gulf Tower banding. This way of holding an adult peregrine keeps it calm. Dorothy got to see the entire banding – not that she was impressed by it.

Meanwhile outside, E2 (the father peregrine) was very angry. Not only did humans take his babies but they took his mate. He zoomed and “kakked” for quite the while. I was hoping he’d perch nearby so I could read his bands and finally learn who he is, but no such luck. He wouldn’t stop for a second.

After the banding was over, the chicks were returned to the nest. Then Dorothy was released but she had one more trick up her sleeve. As WCO Beth Fife let her go, Dorothy wheeled in the air and came back at Beth in attack mode! Whoa! No one got hurt but it reminded all of us how fiercely a peregrine mother defends her young.

For media coverage of this event see KDKAWTAE and watch for a segment on WYEP’s Allegheny Front.

(Photo at top is from my cellphone.)

Three peregrine chicks, University of Pittsburgh, May 27, 2008 (photo by Doug Dunkerley)Bonus! Here are the three chicks huddled in the corner of the nest box just before they were gathered up for the banding.  Photo was taken by WCO Doug Dunkerley, pictured above.

I am not a turkey

Blaze Orange (photo by Rick St. John)Yesterday I hiked at Quebec Run Wild Area in Fayette County.  The site is 7,441 acres at the top of Chestnut Ridge eastward down the mountain, so far south it’s nearly in West Virginia.

Though there is no hunting on Sundays in Pennsylvania, I forgot it was Sunday when I heard gunfire in the distance.  Just to be safe I draped my hat in blaze orange and put on my blaze orange vest. 

May is Spring Gobbler season in which hunters can shoot “bearded” tom turkeys.  Because wild turkeys can see colors, turkey hunters dress in camouflage, hide in the underbrush and use hen-turkey calls to attract the males toward them.  I’m out looking for birds so I might be attracted to the sound of turkeys, too.  Better safe than sorry.

I didn’t encounter any hunters but my blaze orange had an unintended side effect.

Everywhere I went, male and female scarlet tanagers came close to check me out.  When I sat down they came out of the treetops to see me.  One male tanager didn’t even sing.  He just opened his beak at me in a threatening way.

Duh!  I looked like a scarlet tanager!  Of course they were curious about me. 

No, I am not a wild turkey.  I am not a scarlet tanager either.            (Click on the picture my husband took of me to see a photo of a real scarlet tanager.)

Robin Rescue

Wednesday morning at work Joan Guerin called to say a baby robin was hunched in the parking lot in front of a parked car.

Aha!  Her call explained why two adult robins with worms in their mouths kept perching at various lookout spots outside my window and making a racket.  I could tell they were upset about one of their offspring but I hadn’t figured out why.

I gathered up a towel and followed Joan to the baby bird, pictured above. It had feathers but they had not grown in enough for him to fly. When I picked him up with the towel, he opened his beak but made no noise. He had been out in the cold for a while and was hungry and weak.

The best thing to do for a baby robin is to give him back to his parents. His parents have the know-how and time to feed him the right food every 10-20 minutes from dawn to dusk. (Yes, that’s how often they have to be fed!) His parents teach him how to be a robin, forage for worms and watch for danger. His parents will not reject him if a person touches him.

Joan and I watched the adult robins to figure out where the nest was. Soon we saw them carry food to a flimsy nest on top of a lamp. Below it a featherless nestling had fallen out days ago and was dead on the ground.

We borrowed a ladder and I put the bird back in the nest with his two siblings. We stepped away and his parents immediately brought food. When I checked later in the day, all three chicks were sitting in a row with their heads peeping over the nest rim. Happy family.

What should you do if you find a baby robin? Do NOT take it home. Not only are you a poor substitute for the birds parents but federal law prohibits you from keeping a wild bird.

If the bird is too young to fly, it is not far from the nest and its parents know where it is. In fact, its parents are watching you. Put the bird back in the nest or, if the nest is unreachable, put him in a thick bush above ground (out of reach of cats) or up in a tree.

The robin’s parents are watching. When the the coast is clear they will bring food. If the baby bird starts shouting, this is a good thing. Robins recognize their young by sight and sound – not smell. The baby is saying “Hey, I’m over here. Feed me!”

And above all, don’t worry too much. You can’t save every robin. It is statisically impossible. Robins are incredibly prolific (4 eggs per brood, 3 broods per year). Their population is kept in balance by high mortality in their first year. 40% of them don’t make it to the flying stage and of those who learn to fly 75% don’t live more than 6 months. This doesn’t hurt their numbers. Robin populations are stable or growing throughout their range.

When in doubt: Call the Animal Rescue League Wildlife Center in Verona, 412-793-6900 or look at the National Aviary’s website for additional phone numbers.     (Thank you to Jamie Sehrer who added this helpful information in the comments below.)

Weather mortality

Rain clouds over Greenfield, Pittsburgh, PA

Tornadoes and cyclones kill people, but did you know that merely lousy weather kills birds?

The past few weeks have been miserable here in Pittsburgh.  My cellphone picture from last Sunday tells it all.  It has rained nearly every day, sometimes it’s windy, always it’s cold.  It’s been bad for farmers and gardeners and anything that lives outdoors.

The birds who eat insects, such as chimney swifts and swallows, have taken it on the chin.  Insects hide from the cold so there’s less to eat, but that’s precisely when the birds need more food to maintain their body temperature.

I haven’t seen as many chimney swifts and swallows as I’d expect at this time of year.  The ones who haven’t arrived yet from the south are probably lucky.  It’s been so miserable that a flock of chimney swifts gave up for the day at 3:00pm last Wednesday.  I saw them spiral around a chimney and drop in to roost where they clung to the inside to wait out the cold.  I hope the chimney was not fed by a furnace.  We all had our furnaces on.

Bluebirds have suffered too.  They lay their first eggs in April and fledge their first brood in May, feeding them insects from the fields around their nests.  Len Hess reported on PABIRDS that 23 of out of 28 baby bluebirds died in the nest boxes he monitors in Westmoreland County.  The young birds were healthy and doing fine the previous week but the cold and rain spelled disaster.  The same was true for Fred Zahradnik’s bluebirds in the eastern part of the state where they experienced a nor’easter.

This morning there’s a break in the clouds.  Tomorrow the weather is supposed to change, bringing sun and temperatures in the 60s and 70s for the weekend.

Thank goodness for all our sakes!

Peregrine banding at Gulf Tower

Tasha2 during the banding of her chicks, May 19 2008, Gulf Tower, PittsburghThe two peregrine chicks at Gulf Tower were banded Monday morning – 1 male and 1 female. 

The event was organized by the National Aviary and well attended by TV, radio, and newspapers including these articles by KDKAWTAE, and The Post-Gazette.

Beth Fife of the PA Game Commission collected the chicks from the nest but not before she was attacked by the mother peregrine Tasha2, pictured here on my cellphone.  (I like this picture because it gives you a sense of how large an adult peregrine is.)

Peregrines are very protective of their young – as we are of our own – but Tasha2 is so brave and aggressive that she’s willing to hurt herself in the attempt.  To protect her and everyone else Beth captured her first.  Then as Beth reached to collect the chicks, Louie, the father peregrine zoomed past and hit Beth’s head.  This was a surprise!  He used to stay far from the action at banding time.

The chicks and Tasha2 were brought inside.  Erin Estell of the National Aviary kept Tasha calm by holding her in this special way.  Tasha’s babies were given a health check by the National Aviary veterinary staff.  Then the PA Game Commission weighed the chicks (to determine their sex) and applied the bands. 

Peregrine leg bands are color-coded bracelets – in this case black on top, Example of peregrine bandgreen on bottom.  The numbers and letters on the bands are big enough that you can read them in a photograph (as shown here) or through binoculars if you’re not too far away.  When observers report a bird’s bands and location, we learn where it went after it left Pittsburgh.  This is scientifically useful and it’s how peregrine followers find out about peregrine alumni

So how does a peregrine’s weight determine its sex and why do we need to know their sex when they’re banded?  Female peregrines are always larger than males and they weigh more (the Gulf Tower female chick weighed 1100 grams, the male weighed 750g).  Females’ legs are also bigger in diameter so by weighing the birds the banders know which size band to use.

The banding didn’t last long.  In about half an hour, mom and chicks were back in the nest.  The chicks slept all afternoon to make up for the excitement.

Fly UP!

flyUP3.jpgI don’t have a photo of this but the only media that would do it justice is a video and I don’t have that either. Be prepared to use your imagination.

I’ve noticed a bird phenomenon near expressways that have open land on both sides of the highway. Perhaps you’ve seen it too.

Birds fly low and fast, straight toward the highway. Just as they reach the berm of the road they zoom upward 15 or 20 feet, then level off, cross the road and come down on the other side. The path they fly is like a three-sided box: up, across, down. I’ve noticed this most often among grackles and starlings. I’ve even seen yellow warblers do it.

At first I thought the birds were crazy because they did this when no traffic was near them. Then I realized they knew the height of a tractor trailer and, whether or not a truck was coming, they compensated for its height.

Smart!  And it appears they’ve taught it to each other.

Hawks who hunt near highways know about traffic, but they become so absorbed in catching prey that they forget to fly up, or the prey is so heavy they can’t gain altitude. Sadly, they are often killed by cars.

If I see a hawk about to cross low over an expressway I give him room and, yes, I shout at him – almost a prayer – “Fly up! Fly up! Fly up!”

How much do peregrines chicks grow in two weeks?

Peregrine falcons chicks at hatching and at 3 weeks old, University of Pittsburgh, 2008No surprise that I’d ask this question. 

Last week I compared their growth at one week of age.  This Wednesday they were two weeks old. 

So here’s another comparison photo.  The first slide is from the day they hatched, April 30.  The second is at two weeks, May 14.

What a change!

Becoming more independent:

This week the chicks started to move across the gravel.  They’re learning to walk and run. 

On Thursday afternoon one of them motored to the front of the box and took a nap near the green nest rail.  Mom or Dad must have been nearby – perhaps perched on top of the camera – because the chick looked up and opened his beak.  We couldn’t hear what he had to say but I’ll bet he was looking his parent in the eye and saying, “Feed me!”  

Eventually the chick walked to the back of the box and took a nap with his siblings.  You’ll see more walking and begging by all three of them as time goes by. 

Little attacks Big

American Crow (photo by Chuck Tague)The last time I saw a crow it was being attacked by three grackles.  In fact every time I see a crow lately, it’s under attack.  What gives?  Why are little birds attacking big ones?

Pittsburgh’s huge winter flock of crows dispersed by the end of March.  Since then the remaining crows have been secretive.  No raucous parties for them!  They’re up to the serious business of nesting and they don’t want us to find them.  For all intents and purposes, the crows have disappeared.

Meanwhile, the songbirds came home to nest.  By now, grackles, starlings and robins have young to feed.  So do the crows. 

Crows prefer to eat meat if they can get it.  I’ve seen a crow raid a pigeon nest and carry two eggs in its beak back to its own nest.  They’ll also steal nestlings.

So even though the crows are keeping a low profile, the songbirds know that crows will eat their eggs and chicks if they get a chance.  Long before the crow can find their nests, the songbirds gang up and loudly attack the crow.  The noise attracts reinforcements.  If the attack works the crow leaves the area.

At this time of year you will often see little birds attacking big ones.  The birds they attack are threats to their nests:
Crows attack red-tailed hawks,
Grackles and blue jays attack crows,
Chickadees attack blue jays.

When they’re nesting, a bird’s best defense is a good offense.