Monthly Archives: November 2009

The Bird With The Imaginary Name

Yellow-bellied sapsucker (photo by Chuck Tague)
Yellow-bellied sapsucker (photo by Chuck Tague)

My husband and I spent the Thanksgiving holiday with my family in southeastern Virginia.  I went birding several times while there and always saw a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

When I told my husband this was the Best Bird on my outings he remarked that it has the sort of name you’d invent for fiction.  Imagine a British comedy in which a twitcher (the British name for bird watchers) arrives for tea and discusses the bird he wants to see on his trip to America.  “Yellow-bellied sapsucker,” he says.  Everyone laughs.

Weird as it seems this woodpecker is well named.  Mostly black, white and red he has a yellow wash on his belly and he sips sap.

Sapsuckers drill horizontal rows of small holes in tree bark, then return to sip the sap that wells in them.  On my walks in Virginia they chose southern pines for this meal.  In Pittsburgh they seem to prefer maples.

Sap sipping alone would not have won my Best Bird award last weekend.  What impressed me was the cavalier way that a sapsucker ate poison ivy berries, tossing them in the air and catching them in his beak.

Pretty cool bird … or was he imaginary?


(photo by Chuck Tague)

Follow the Road Home

Rock Pigeon in flight (by Alan D. Wilson)

Today is one of the heaviest travel days in the U.S. so I thought it an appropriate time to tell you that the roads may be congested overhead as well.  That’s because birds sometimes use them for navigation.

This is not a new discovery.  People who race pigeons had noticed that their birds seemed to follow roads – big roads – when racing home.  It wasn’t possible to prove this however until 2004 when GPS tracking technology got small enough to put on the back of a racing pigeon.

They tested the theory near Rome where they released racing pigeons 20-80 km from their lofts.  Researchers found that the experienced birds tended to follow roads and railroad tracks until they were relatively close to home.  If a bird had flown the route before it was much more likely to use a road as a guide.  Some birds even went out of their way to stay on the road and turn only at intersections.

Why do they do this?  Perhaps because it frees up their minds for focusing on other things.

And why do we prefer expressways?  Perhaps for the same reason … except that our minds are very busy today because the traffic is so bad.

For more information click here for the online article.

(photo by Alan D. Wilson, in the public domain under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license at Wikimedia)

Anatomy: Primaries are Remiges

Snow goose with primaries and remiges marked (photo from Wikipedia, retouched)If you’ve been birding for a while you’ve probably heard, even used, the word “primaries” but the word remiges could be new to you. It was to me.

Let’s tackle these two terms in reverse order since remiges are a more general term.

Remiges (pronounced REH.midg.iz) are the flight feathers on a bird’s wing, outlined in red in this picture.

Remiges include all the flight feathers – primaries, secondaries and tertials – and make up the entire trailing edge of the wing.

So what are the primaries?

Answer:  David Sibley describes them as “flight feathers growing from the “hand” bones and forming the lower border of the folded wing.”

The snow goose is an easy example, a white bird with black primaries.  I’ve circled his primaries in green above.

A quick way to think of primary feathers is that they’re where the bird’s fingers would be.  The difference is that there are 9 to 11 of them, sometimes more depending on the species, so they extend around the lower edge of the wing.  If you had 10 fingers on each hand, where would you put them?  Probably where the bird puts his.

Primaries are easy to see on large birds in flight.  Watch soaring red-tailed hawks and you’ll see that they spread their primaries and tip them up to reduce wingtip vortex.   Aircraft engineers design upturned wingtips on airplanes for the same reason.

So… the primaries are feathers where the birds fingers would be, and all primaries are remiges (wing flight feathers) but not all remiges are primaries.

(photo of snow geese from Wikipedia)

Food For People… or From People?

Wild Turkey (photo by Sam Leinhardt)
This wild turkey is smart.  She lives where people feed her instead of where she feeds people. 

She’s the biological ancestor of the domestic turkeys we’re eating today but she has nothing to worry about.  Way back when, the Aztecs domesticated turkeys for a ready supply of eggs and meat.  Since then turkeys have been bred to match our tastes, and our tastes have changed so much that most people don’t like the game-y meat of the wild bird.

Having turkey for dinner today?  “Don’t look at me,” she says.

(photo by Sam Leinhardt of a wild turkey who nested behind his backyard.)

The Month for the Ax, Part 2

Ash tree dying of Emerald Ash Borer (photo from PA DCNR's EAB website)Fall is a good time to cut down diseased and dying trees so I was not surprised when Tony Bledsoe told me he saw a diseased ash tree being cut down at Pitt’s campus. When he mentioned the location, I remembered seeing a tree there that looked like this one dying of emerald ash borer (EAB).

Emerald ash borer is present in Allegheny County and is becoming the scourge of our ash trees.  The larvae of this pest burrow under the bark and eat through the tree’s vascular system.  After a tree becomes infected it dies in 1-3 years.

Tony and I both wondered if the tree at Pitt was afflicted with EAB and if so, how the tree company could prevent the spread of this dangerous bug.  Can the waste wood be burned?  Can it be sold as lumber?  Can it be dumped at a yard debris site?

I asked Steve Miller of Bartlett Tree Experts, a Board Certified Master Arborist whom I met at an urban tree tending workshop.  He told me there are rules about wood transport and best practices for wood management.

The rules are that Allegheny County and a large part of western Pennsylvania are in a wood transport quarantine zone. We must not transport firewood because it could spread EAB to uninfected areas.  The waste wood probably won’t be sold as lumber because it’s damaged and it’s from a quarantine zone.

The recommended way to dispose of EAB-infested trees is by chipping, burial or burning, but the wood should not be stored as firewood through the winter months.  The larvae are hiding under the bark.

If you have a diseased tree in your yard, be careful what you do with it.  The important thing is to know what you’re looking at.  Is it an ash tree?  It is afflicted with emerald ash borer?   Is it time for the ax?

Get good advice.  Ask an arborist.

(photo from Pennsylvania DCNR’s EAB website.  Click the photo to see it in its original context.)

In a Tree?

Peregrine falcon, Diana, in Shaker Heights, OH (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)
People sometimes tell me they have a peregrine in their backyard, perched in a tree.

For as many times as I’ve seen peregrines, I’ve never seen one in a tree except in Maine – rarely – at Acadia National Park.  Pittsburgh’s peregrines seem to prefer buildings, bridges and other man-made structures even though we have plenty of trees, so when I hear of backyard peregrines I usually suggest the bird was a Coopers or red-tailed hawk.

Imagine my surprise when I found this picture by Chad and Chris Saladin of Diana, the adult female peregrine at Tower East in Shaker Heights, Ohio, perched in a tree in the cemetery near her nest.

Peregrines always surprise me.

(photo by Chad and Chris Saladin)

Misguided Beauty

Oriental Bittersweet fruit (photo by Dianne Machesney)
Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), native to Asia, captured the hearts of American gardeners in the 1870s.  What an ideal plant it seemed, with gorgeous red berries that appeared just in time for festive holiday decorations.

Unfortunately it escaped to the wild and is now an invasive vine that thickly covers our native plants.  It spreads easily because its fruit tastes good to birds and is now listed as invasive in 21 states and 14 national parks.  What a mistake!

And yet, it is beautiful.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

Anatomy: Culmen

Culmen shown on European starling (photo by Chuck Tague)Winter is lousy for field work but it’s a good time to curl up with a book and learn something, so in that spirit I’ve decided to (finally!) learn more about bird anatomy. 

Yes, I’ve watched birds for decades but that doesn’t mean I know the scientific names for the parts of a bird.  During research on various blogs I’ve encountered many technical names, but what do they mean? 

Maybe the names stump you, too.  Why not make this a group project?  So here’s the first in a weekly series on bird anatomy. 

What is a culmen?  It sounds vaguely like… ummmm…. “culminate,” a related word. 

Answer:  It’s “the dorsal ridge of the bird’s bill.”  For us laypeople, it’s the top of the beak from the head to the tip, as shown by the green line. 

I encountered “culmen” when I looked for the length of the pileated woodpecker’s beak.  The answer was “the male’s culmen is 43-56 mm” so I had to look up two things:  the meaning of culmen and the conversion from millimeters to inches.

The shape of the culmen is a useful field mark for identifying birds.  Some bills (culmen) curve up as on American avocets, some are straight, and some curve down as on the long-billed curlew.

So now you know.

(photo by Chuck Tague with graphics added by Kate St. John)


American crows attacking an immature Coopers Hawk (photo by Steve Gosser)
With so many crows in town it’s inevitable they’ll encounter a predator they don’t like.  Pity the immature Coopers hawk in this picture! 

As a species Coopers hawks have enough moxy to cope with crows but 3 to 1 is stretching the odds. 

I’m sure the crows started it.  A “Coop” is not going to eat a healthy adult crow but the crows remember what the hawk can do to their weak youngsters, so when they found an immature Coopers hawk they decided to test their strength, maybe have a little fun at the hawk’s expense. 

They’re serious about this fight but it’s not life threatening.  Eventually it breaks up, no one gets hurt, and everyone involved learns a valuable lesson. 

The crows learn about cooperation.  The Coopers hawk learns to avoid gangs.

(photo by Steve Gosser, September 2008)