Monthly Archives: January 2009

Lead Poisoning

Bald Eagle in rehab for lead poisoning at Medina Raptor Center, Medina, Ohio (photo by Debbie Parker)In the past several years we’ve become very aware of the dangers of lead poisoning, especially in children.  We test our houses for lead paint, recall toys containing lead and filter our water.

But one problem we haven’t solved yet is the lead poisoning we cause in wildlife – and possibly ourselves – from spent bullets, shot and fishing sinkers.  The heartbreaking results are lead poisoned loons, dead California condors and dying eagles.  Sadly there’s a direct correlation between deer season and an increase in wildlife lead-poisoning.  In Iowa it is the major cause of illness in bald eagles.

Because eagles are scavengers, they feast on the gut piles left behind by hunters.  While this is an easy source of food – and it’s a good thing someone eats it – the guts contain tiny fragments of lead dispersed by the bullet’s transit.  Some fragments are so small they can only be seen by a microscope.  It takes just 30mg to kill an eagle.

Symptoms of lead poisoning include loss of balance, gasping, tremors, impaired flight, blindness, eventual starvation and death in two to three weeks.  A lead-poisoned eagle is very, very sick.  Click here and scroll down for a photo.

The lucky ones are rescued.  That’s what happened to the eagle pictured here.  She was found by hunters in Stark County, Ohio on December 28 and delivered to Medina Raptor Center.  There she received injections of calcium EDTA, a mineral that binds to lead so the body can expel it in urea.  It’s a long process and if blood tests show the bird’s lead level is still too high it has to be repeated.

Fortunately this eagle was found in time.  She’s still recovering and doing well.  We hope she’ll make a full recovery and be released back into the wild.

Meanwhile, is there anything we can do to prevent this?   Yes.   In 1991, after people realized that ducks and geese were dying of lead poisoning, lead shot was banned for waterfowl hunting.  It could be banned for deer and small game hunting, but in the meantime if you know a hunter or fisherman, urge him or her to use non-toxic bullets and sinkers.  And if they do use lead bullets, bury or remove the gut pile from the wild.

Better safe than sorry.

(photo by Debbie Parker at Medina Raptor Center.  My special thanks go to the Raptor Center for treating and housing Pitt Stop, an injured and unreleaseable peregrine falcon born at Pittsburgh’s Gulf Tower in 2003.)


Subnivian mouse trails at my bird feeder (photo by Kate St. John)Last night it snowed then sleeted then rained.  It’s still raining, but so cold it’s turning to ice.

This morning I looked out the back window to see how the bird feeders were doing and found a network in the snow. 

What’s this?  I went out to investigate. 

All the lines originated from a hole under the sidewalk and grew outward like a tree toward the bird feeder.  Subnivean mouse trails! 

Subnivean means “under the snow.”  The mouse came out last night and tunneled to the feeders.  Under the snow he stayed warm and relatively safe from predators while he munched down on fallen seed.  Until today I didn’t even know he lived there because his trails in powdery snow aren’t as visible, but this morning the ice and rain made his tunnel roof transparent.  Way cool!

Many animals live under the snow all winter.   If you click on the photo, you’ll see a diagram of subnivean life in the arctic.  Here in Pittsburgh we don’t have snow cover all winter so the activity is intermittent. 

Want to hear more?  Here’s an audio story from New Hampshire Public Radio.

(photo by Kate St. John, using my cell phone which caused that pink tinge.)

Giant Bird Feeder

Grain silos in Lawrence County, PA (photo by Kate St. John)On Sunday I went to Lawrence County to see the horned larks and snow buntings reported on PABIRDS.  The clue I received was to go to the Volant Strips and look for the grain silos near the intersection of US Route 19 and Black Road. 

Here they are.  Big.  Full of corn.  With lots of spilled grain on the ground around them. 

A flock of 100 snow buntings fed on the driveway at the back of the silos, house sparrows fed at the front, and horned larks walked through the parking lot. 

Between feeding sessions the snow buntings perched and preened on the horizontal bar on top of the silos.  The house sparrows perched on the building next door.

Birds attract birds.  Six male bluebirds fluttered from bush to bush in the adjacent grassland.  A sharp-shinned hawk raised the house sparrows in a dense frightened flock – but didn’t catch any of them.  A rough-legged hawk patrolled the area looking for rodents and unsuspecting birds.

Just like a giant bird feeder, all the action in the neighborhood was right here.  It was cold(!) but easy to find. 

(photo of the Deerfield grain silos by Kate St. John.    Steve Gosser took pictures here on Saturday.  Click on the grain silos and these links for his photos of snow buntings, a horned lark and a rough-legged hawk.)

Body Language

Northern cardinal eating sunflower seeds (photo by Chuck Tague)
Northern cardinal eating sunflower seeds (photo by Chuck Tague)

Have you ever tried to read birds’ body language?  It’s easier than you think.

Birds use song and call notes to communicate but, just like humans, body language is part of their repertoire.

Calm or submissive birds keep their feathers sleek, their wings and tails closed, and their head feathers down like the cardinal above.

Agitated birds show different levels of aggression with their posture. At a low level the bird puts his body in a horizontal position and raises his crest or head feathers like the northern cardinal shown below.

Agitated northern cardinal (photo by Chuck Tague)
Agitated northern cardinal (photo by Chuck Tague)

To really make his point the bird gapes his beak with his head thrust forward.  This house sparrow says, “Back off!”

House sparrow in aggressive posture (photo by Chuck Tague)
House sparrow in aggressive posture (photo by Chuck Tague)


To look more threatening a bird opens his wings and puffs up to appear larger. Dorothy, the female peregrine falcon at Pitt 2001-2015, shows a great example of this while defending her nest on Banding Day in 2004.

Peregrine mother, Dorothy, defends her babies on banding day, 2004 (photo by Jack Rowley)
Peregrine mother, Dorothy, defends her babies on banding day, 2004 (photo by Jack Rowley)


Some body language is not as easy to figure out.  Why do northern mockingbirds quickly open and close their wings in a raised V?  Ornithologists have several theories on this wing-flashing gesture but no one knows for sure. Perhaps it’s meant to startle insects or attract attention.  If a person flicks out his arms like a mockingbird he will certainly attract attention!

Wouldn’t it be amazing if people showed their emotions the way birds do?  Imagine a business meeting in which an aggressive person gapes his mouth(beak) to make his point and all around the table people slowly raise their crests.

It would add a whole new dimension to our body language.


(Northern cardinal and house sparrow photos by Chuck Tague. Peregrine falcon (Dorothy) photo by Jack Rowley)

It feels like March

Dorothy, the adult female Peregrine at Univ of Pittsburgh (photo by Pat Szczepanski)This morning the sky is blue, the sun is shining, the wind is out of the south and the temperature will be above freezing for the first time in weeks.  45oF! 

For the past few days I haven’t walked to work so I felt the need to put some mileage on my feet when I got off the bus at Forbes and Craig this morning.  On such a fine day why not walk over to Pitt and see what the peregrines are doing? 

I studied the Cathedral of Learning through my binoculars right away but I didn’t see anything.  Just as I reached Dippy the dinosaur statue I saw a peregrine flying around the 30th floor.  He was soaring and flapping his wing tips in territorial flight.  And he seemed happy.

It was E2.  He had delivered breakfast to Dorothy at their “dining ledge.”  Then he flew around the building, gained altitude and settled high on the corner of the 40th floor to watch her eat.

It almost feels like March:  Peregrine courtship time.

(photo by Pat Szczepanski of Dorothy, the female peregrine falcon at the University of Pittsburgh)

Which Chickadee Are You?

Black-capped chickadee (photo by Chuck Tague)

Most birders east of the Rocky Mountains never have to ask this question, but along an east-west line that surrounds the southwest corner of Pennsylvania it’s an important question indeed.  It’s one I often ask myself as I travel around the region.

Two species of chickadees live here – black-capped and carolina – and they look a lot alike.

Because chickadees are non-migratory you can usually be certain of the species based on your location in eastern North America:  black-caps live in the north, carolinas live south.  But around here you have to think about the line – are you on the black-capped or carolina side? – and you have to check field marks.

Black-capped chickadees have white on their wings that looks like an inverted hockey stick, their sides are olive and the edge of their black bib is a ragged line.  They sing a two-note song (fee-bee) and slowly say “chick-a-dee, chick-a-dee-dee.”  They live in the Laurel Highlands and north of Pittsburgh so if you’re in either of those places you can be fairly certain of the species.

Carolina chickadees live in Allegheny County and further south.  They’re smaller with proportionally shorter tails, they don’t have the hockey stick shape on their wings, they have less olive on their sides and the border of their black bibs is more distinct.  Their song is four notes (fee-bee-fee-bay) and their chickadee call is much faster.  The guides say song is the best field mark.

But notice how these descriptions are all comparatives of “more this” and “less that” than the other species.  Since it’s unlikely you will find these species next to each other it’s not very helpful to compare them, especially when you’re on the chickadee dividing line.

And there are further complications.  Along the dividing line they can expand or contract their ranges, they borrow each others’ songs and – even worse – they hybridize!  When that happens the only way to tell them apart is by a DNA test.

So have a little patience with those of us who live on the chickadee border.  If we say we’ve seen a “chickadee species” it’s because we left our DNA kits at home.  😉


(photo of a Black-capped Chickadee by Chuck Tague)

Crossbills Close to Home

White-winged Crossbills (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Yes, I did see crossbills in Pittsburgh last week.  Here’s my update – which is beginning to sound like All Crossbills, All The Time.

Last Wednesday while I was dreaming of a crossbill road trip to Washington Cemetery, Dan Yagusic found them at Allegheny Cemetery in the city of Pittsburgh.

On Thursday I took my binoculars to work and spent my lunch hour riding the 54C bus from Oakland to the cemetery’s Penn Ave entrance, then walking in.   I found the birds almost immediately.  In fact I heard them in Section 19 before I saw them flying from tree to tree.  They would not stay put.  Eventually I walked to Section 25 where Dan said they should be.  There I found several birders but no crossbills.  Oh well.  I had to get back to work.

Thursday’s brief view was not enough so I drove to the cemetery on Saturday morning for another look.  It was cold!  Below zero!

I entered the cemetery from Penn Avenue and again heard the crossbills almost immediately.  They were feeding in a hemlock above me but soon zoomed off to another tree at the base of the hill.  I followed them on foot and watched them feeding for about five minutes, long enough to get good looks at their acrobatics.  Then they left.

Again at Section 25 I found birders but no birds.  We chatted for a while and waited.  The crossbills passed through twice.  Then I was too cold to stay any longer.

As I walked back to my car the crossbills visited a tree above me but I moved too quickly and startled them – and they were gone.

As is usual with my bird quests, I had no trouble finding my target birds when I wasn’t looking for them.  And when I went to the place they should be, they weren’t there.

p.s.  Last Thursday I called Eagle Optics in Wisconsin about an order and ended up talking to Mike McDowell who also writes a birding & digiscoping blog.  Wisconsin is having a crossbill invasion too and Mike’s blog has a neat video showing how crossbills feed on hemlock cones.

(photo of White-winged Crossbills by Cris Hamilton.  I love how the female bird on the right looks like she’s jumping.)


Keeping The Airways Safe

Peregrine Falcon (photo by Kim Steininger)Since US Airways Flight 1549 made a forced landing in the Hudson River last Thursday, the subject of airplane-bird collisions (called “bird strikes”) has been much in the news.

The Associated Press reported this morning, “The birds flew majestically, in perfect formation, and the co-pilot saw them coming. For a moment, it looked like they would pass beneath US Airways Flight 1549, but when Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger looked up, they were there in his windscreen.  Big.  Dark brown.  Lots of them.”

If I was to guess I’d say the birds in question were Canada geese.  The collision disabled both jet engines.  Miraculously the pilot landed the crippled plane on the river and all on board escaped safely.  The geese undoubtedly died.

As air traffic has grown and birds have become accustomed to airplanes and airports, the number of bird strikes has increased.  Several airports have taken measures to keep the airways safe.  One of the most effective involves peregrine falcons.

At New York’s JFK, Toronto’s Pearson and Montréal-Trudeau airport a company called Falcon Environmental Services uses falconry techniques to clear the air.  When the falcons fly, other birds stay away as much as a mile.  Though the company uses additional bird control methods including bird distress calls, pyrotechnics and propane cannons, those methods wear off when the problem birds learn to ignore them, but their fear of peregrines never fades. 

The falconers position the peregrines to target the biggest problems:  large birds and flocks.  Canada geese fit both categories so getting them out of the area is the number one goal.  Gulls can be a problem too, especially at JFK which is right next to a large gull nesting area:  Jamaica Bay. 

Airport patrol is a full time job.  It works well, but when the falcons are gone the problem birds come back.  So it’s important to keep flying. 

Luckily, that’s what a peregrine loves to do!

For a video of the peregrines in action at JFK, click here.  

(Peregrine falcon photo by Kim Steininger)


Pine Siskin and American Goldfinches (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)As I write this it’s -4 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 Celsius).

Fortunately there’s a nice covering of snow to protect the plants and small animals, but we and the birds operate in the air – where it’s coldest.

Years ago I knew a woman named Louise Reiley who was a missionary nurse in Alaska and China more than 50 years ago.  She had many stories about the successes and hardships of her time abroad but there was one thing she said that stuck with me:  “Hot and cold are a state of mind.”

Louise explained that if you thought “warm” when it was cold, you wouldn’t feel the temperature.  She said it really worked.  I have never been able to do it.  Instead I compensate by wearing layers. 

Today it’s going to take a while to get dressed:  tights, corduroy jeans, ski pants, two layers of socks, boots with felt linings, undershirt, turtleneck, wool sweater, parka with hood, boola scarf, hat, glove liners, mittens.  When I’m done I can barely walk and can’t see my feet without bending over, but I don’t feel the cold. 

I’m lucky I don’t have to stay outdoors all the time.  Birds do, so today will be especially challenging for them.  They’ll fluff out their feathers to make their down hold more heat and they’ll eat a lot.  If they don’t get enough to eat, they’ll die.

So bundle up and fill your bird feeders.  Let’s all think “warm.”

(photo of a Pine Siskin and American Goldfinches by Marcy Cunkelman)


White-winged crossbills in flight (photo by Cris Hamilton)The word went out yesterday.  If you want to see the white-winged crossbills at Washington Cemetery in Washington, PA now’s the time to do it.  The flock is large – about 100 – the weather is changing and they might leave. 

Amy Taracido, who writes the Rare Bird Alerts for western Pennsylvania, took the hint and went to the cemetery yesterday afternoon.  She and her husband saw dozens of Life Birds all at once.  To use her words, “The birds are so beautiful, like stained glass.”

Cris Hamilton braved the sleet last weekend to get this picture.  They are indeed beautiful, like confetti in the sky. 

Oh to have seen that many crossbills!  I went to the cemetery in December and found only two. 

Please stay there, little birds!  I can’t come to see you until the weekend.


(photo by Cris Hamilton)