Monthly Archives: February 2009

One Good Tern Deserves…

Sandwich tern (photo by Chuck Tague)
Sandwich tern (photo by Chuck Tague)

…a closer look.

For as many times as I’d been to Florida I’d never seen a sandwich tern.  They may have flown by me in years past, but fast-moving gulls and terns are hard for me to identify.  I just don’t see them often enough to be good at it.  Pittsburgh is sorely lacking an oceanfront.

Last year Chuck Tague gave me a good tip on identifying terns and I wrote it in my field guide:  Look at the bills and legs.  What color and shape is the bill?  What color are the legs?

Caspian terns are easy.  They’re big and stocky and their bills look like fat carrots attached to their faces.

I now see that sandwich terns are easy too.  They’re the only “crested” tern with a black bill, and it’s a very fancy one – all black with a yellow tip.  This color combination is quite unique.  Plenty of birds have black-tipped yellow bills but in searching my field guide I can find only one other bird with a yellow-tipped black bill:  the Sabine’s gull.  I wonder why.

Another puzzle was their name.  Why are they called “sandwich” terns?  Isn’t Sandwich in England?

Again, my land-lubber roots were showing.  If I lived near the ocean I’d know that seabirds can easily occur worldwide because they find food everywhere there’s salt water – and so it is with sandwich terns.  They nest on the coasts of Europe, North and South America, and winter on the coasts of the Americas, the Mediterranean, Africa, India and the Middle East.   Birds born here are sometimes found in the Netherlands and U.K. in winter – and vice versa.

This also explains their name, given to them by John Latham in 1787 from a specimen found at Sandwich Bay, Kent, England.   Back then they bred there.  Interestingly, their Latin name recently changed from Sterna sandvicensis to Thalasseus sandvicensis after DNA tests put them in a different genus.  The “sandwich” part remains the same.

At Ponce Inlet I had a good long look at the terns as they stood in a mixed flock facing the wind only 12 feet away.  I could easily see how different they were from Forster’s terns.  (Click on the photo to see for yourself – a Forster’s tern standing between two sandwich terns.)

And finally, you can tell I’ve been birding with pun-master Chuck Tague for six days because I started this blog with an “almost” pun.  I veered away from it just in time.

(photos by Chuck Tague)

Bird watching at the grocery store

House sparrow (photo by Chuck Tague)I heard birds.

High above the crowd, five house sparrows hopped and chirped among the grocery store’s fluorescent lights.

I can guess how they got there.  House sparrows are known for their ingenuity with motion-activated doors.

I once observed a small flock that lived in an underground garage whose only access was through an automatic garage door.  When the door was closed, the sparrows lined up on both sides of it and waited.  As soon as a car triggered the door they zoomed through as the door was rising.  Smart.

The grocery store sparrows were smart too.  What a setup!  Abundant food and climate control.  I’m sure they would have flown both in and out, but the weather was bitterly cold.  They were unlikely to leave on their own.

Since I seemed to be the only person who noticed them, I kept my discovery to myself until I reached the checkout.

“You have birds,” I said to the cashier.

“Yes,” she said, “We like them.”

She sounded defiant.  Perhaps she’d discussed the birds with many customers and was tired of explaining them.  Before I could think how to reply she said, “And they’re not dirty at all.”

I hadn’t even suggested that.  Clearly she wanted the birds to be left alone.

I love birds but I know the stalemate cannot last.  House sparrows begin building nests in February.  Their average clutch size is five eggs and they can raise as many as four broods per season.  By April the grocery store population could triple.  By August they’d have more than 50 birds indoors.

Soon the store will have to set up mist nets and capture the sparrows.  The cashier will be unhappy, but not for long.  I give it only a month before the next sparrows fly in and the whole process starts over.

(photos by Chuck Tague)

Speaking of Brainy Birds

Florida scrub-jay on Joan's hat (photo by Chuck Tague)
Florida scrub-jay standing next to a scrub-jay pin (photo by Chuck Tague)

February 22, 2009

Right now I’m in Florida, birding with Chuck and Joan Tague, and have learned that parrots aren’t the only birds with brains.  Pictured here is a wise guy corvid, a Florida scrub-jay standing on Joan’s hat.

Corvids can remember, analyze, innovate and even use tools.  This is exactly the kind of intelligence that comes from living in complex social groups, and for that sort of family life look to this jay.

Florida scrub-jays (Aphelocoma coerulescens) are extreme habitat specialists who require arid oak and palmetto scrub to survive.  East of the Mississippi this habitat is isolated to Florida and is further isolated – and disappearing – within Florida.  With nowhere else to go, most Florida scrub-jays spend their entire lives within a half mile of their birthplace.

Scientists conjecture that scarce suitable habitat over a long period of time has led them to adopt an unusual lifestyle called cooperative breeding.  In it, each pair has one to six nest helpers who feed and protect the young.  The helpers may or may not be related to the breeding pair but they learn breeding skills and increase the breeding pair’s nesting success.  Helpers also have the advantage of being on site to inherit the territory should one of the pair die.

The arrangement works for all of them and provides a perfect setting to develop smart birds.  Because they must cooperate to survive, those who anticipate the actions of others are better at dealing with life’s situations.  As Candace Savage says, “Nothing is more intellectually challenging than living in a social group, surrounded by a bunch of other animals that are sharpening their wits on you.”

So why does this smart bird land on a hat?

I hope to get the chance to ask him myself.  😉


(photo by Chuck Tague)

p.s. Florida scrub-jays are listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act and have been studied extensively.

Higher Intelligence

I’ve been hooked on books about parrots ever since I read The Parrot Who Owns Me, so as soon as I could I read Alex & Me by Irene M. Pepperberg.  I highly recommend it.

Alex & Me is the story of Dr. Pepperberg’s relationship with Alex a “brainy” African grey parrot, how she acquired him, how she taught him and how he taught her. 

In her lab Dr. Pepperberg used a model/rival training technique to teach Alex.  In it, two trainers take turns asking each other about an object, “What is this?”  “Paper.”  “What color is this?” “Blue.”  Then they would ask Alex.

Alex was indeed brainy.  He learned quickly and adapted what he learned to fit new situations. As his lessons progressed he showed everyone that he had a commanding personality.  I laughed to read how he broke in new students by demanding everything he could think of, “Want nut.  Want corn.  Wanna go shoulder.”  The students had to run around and provide what he wanted because it was part of the training.

Eventually Dr. Pepperberg acquired other African grey parrots for the study and used the same training techniques.  She also tried to have Alex teach them.  This was OK with Alex but he always had to be top parrot so he was as bossy with the other birds as he was with the students.  When a younger parrot named Griffin faltered during training, Alex would answer for him or tell him to pronounce the answer more clearly, “Say better!”  Sometimes Alex would butt in and quickly give the wrong answer just to throw Griffin off.

African greys can live 70 years so it was surprising and very sad when Alex died suddenly at only 31 years old.  Who knows what heights he could have reached had he lived.

In his short life Alex changed the way we think about bird intelligence and our ability to communicate with other species.  Humans aren’t as separate as we thought.  As Dr. Pepperberg says, “Alex taught us that we are a part of nature, not apart from nature.” 

(Click on the photo of the book cover to read excerpts or buy it at

Eagles Online

Bald Eagle pair at Blackwater NWR (photo from Friends of Blackwater eagle cam)Perhaps you’re as anxious for spring as I am and maybe, like me, you can’t wait to watch the peregrine webcams. 

Many of the falconcams aren’t broadcasting yet – or they’re boring – because peregrines in the middle latitudes (that’s most of the United States) don’t lay eggs until March and April. 

If you live near a peregrine nest, you’ll see the peregrines doing courtship flights and aerial displays but only occasionally visiting the nest.  The falconcams don’t have much to show.

Bald eagles, on the other hand, are deep into family life right now.  Courtship is over, the nest is built, and many of the pairs laid eggs in the last two weeks.  The eaglecams are up and running and there’s plenty to see. 

So while you’re waiting for peregrine season to heat up, here are four Eagle Cams to keep you busy:

Have fun watching eagles online.  

p.s. The number of eggs at these nests keeps going up.  See the comments!

(photo is from the Friends of Blackwater eagle cam.  Click on the photo to visit the cam.  Click here for information on their March 14th Eagle Festival.)

Maple Sugaring or What to Look For in Late February

Maple sugar bucket hanging on a tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Spring is whispering to us.

Yesterday at Raccoon Creek State Park I saw a sugar maple whose branch tips were broken in last week’s wind storm.  The sap was already rising in this tree and, because the air was below freezing, the sap formed icicles at the tips of the branches.

Maple sugar time is just one of the signs to watch for in late February.

Chuck Tague’s latest phenology explains more about maple sugaring and some cool things to look for in the earliest signs of spring.  Below is a quick peek at his list.  Click here for his full report.

  • Ice leaves the lakes, the ducks fly north.
  • Tundra swans will be on the move too.
  • Watch for the first turkey vultures to arrive, just one or two at first.  To see a lot of them, go to Hinckley Township, Ohio for Buzzard Day on March 15.
  • Male common grackles and red-winged blackbirds will soon push north to set up territory before their ladies arrive.
  • Skunk cabbage will poke its head out of the snow.  Yesterday at Raccoon I found some as tall as my thumb.
  • Watch for European Starlings to become glossy while their beaks turn yellow for spring.
  • The days are getting longer!  By February 28 we’ll have more than 11 hours of daylight and the sun will set after 6:00pm.

(photo of a traditional maple sugar tap from Wikipedia Commons.  Click on the photo to see the original.)

Don’t Mess With Me!

Tasha, the female peregrine falcon at Gulf Tower (photo by Todd Katzner)

Peregrine falcon nesting season is here!

This morning Todd Katzner, of the National Aviary, placed a webcam near Tasha and Louie’s nest at the Gulf Tower in downtown Pittsburgh. 

As you can see, Tasha was there and she wasn’t happy! 

“Don’t mess with my nest!” she says.

The webcams will soon be live on the Aviary’s website.  I’ll let you know when they’re up.

Stay tuned!

(photo of Tasha, the adult female peregrine falcon at the Gulf Tower in Pittsburgh, by Dr. Todd Katzner)

Go Birding Where It’s Warm

Baby Flamingo at the National Aviary (photo from The National Aviary)This afternoon’s weather was sunny and warm but it’s not going to last.  Thursday will be windy and much colder and Sunday will be freezing.  


I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of winter.  Just for once I’d like to observe birds without having to wear a coat, hat and gloves.  And while I’m wishing, I’d like to see young birds for a change. 

OnQ’s Tonia Caruso did just that when she visited the National Aviary’s Wetland Room last month.  Not only was it delightfully warm but she got to see three young American flamingos who just graduated from “day care” to the Wetlands Room. 

Sweetums, Piggy and Beaker hatched in late June and early July from eggs provided by other zoos.  Though there are five adult flamingos at the Aviary the babies are not theirs because flamingos won’t breed unless they are living in a large group.  The Aviary’s Erin Estell tells me that some zoos put mirrors around their flamingos.  This makes them think they’re in a larger group and prompts the couples to mate and nest.

These baby flamingos were incubated and raised by hand.  Cute and fluffy back in August, they’re now tall and partially pink.  (Click on the baby picture to see them now.)  If all goes well some day they’ll have roles in the indoor bird show theater, breaking ground in April. 

To see them from the comfort of your living room, don’t miss WQED’s OnQ on Thursday February 12 at 7:30pm. 

Or visit the National Aviary and go birding where it’s warm – without leaving town! 

(photo of young American flamingo from the National Aviary)