Monthly Archives: May 2012

What’s Wrong With Mute Swans?

As you can tell by the question, mute swans are controversial.

These big, beautiful, white birds with knobbed orange bills are originally from Eurasia, imported to North America as living decorations for ornamental ponds. Their curved necks and stately demeanor brought their owners a touch of romance and hints of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

The imported birds were captive but their offspring were not.  In the 1900’s mute swans became wildly successful and spread along the East Coast from Maine to South Carolina with smaller flocks in the Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest.  That’s when the problems began.

Mute swans are very territorial.  When defending their nesting and feeding areas they chase and peck any species that gets in their way, sometimes even humans.  Because they’re so large and aggressive they rarely have to fight.  Simply raising their wings (like this) can be enough.  Mute swans win through intimidation.

The result is that native waterfowl are driven off their breeding grounds and the swans’ large appetites degrade the vegetative habitat.  Both problems have contributed to native waterfowl declines.

In 2003 the mute swan’s burgeoning population, increasing 10% per year, led the US Fish and Wildlife Service to propose controlling them in the Atlantic Flyway.  Swan lovers, like Save the Mute Swans in Connecticut, responded with local protection laws.

The controversy continues.  Native waterfowl decline where mute swans thrive and Audubon chapters ask that the species be controlled.

Like Canada geese and white-tailed deer our society has artificially altered the mute swan’s population. We’ve made too much of a good thing and now we’re coping with the results.

For a good description of mute swans and the controversy surrounding them, see this Tails of Birding blog from 2008.


(photo by Shawn Collins)

I Love Pixels

A couple of months ago I borrowed a camera and tried taking photos of flowers. Occasionally a bird would come close and I’d snap its picture too.

You will never see those pictures. Good bird photography requires better equipment than I had borrowed and I found out it’s very hard to do.

In the old days — about five years ago — far fewer people photographed birds. I know this because I was just starting to blog and it was hard to find pictures. Thankfully, Chuck Tague helped me out with his beautiful photos of birds and nature.

In 2007 it was a big commitment to own a good digital camera but technology has improved. It’s so inexpensive now that my cellphone has the same pixel count as a good camera back then. But my cellphone is not a good camera.  It doesn’t have the optical quality required for sharp pictures.

Even so, I love pixels.

Pixels are the tiny dots that make up a digital photograph. When there are a lot of them they’re densely packed so you can zoom the photo on camera or computer and still see a sharp image (if the image was sharp to begin with). As you zoom, the pixels move away from each other but there are so many of them that you don’t lose much quality.

With a zoom lens, a great camera, and good light it’s possible to take a photo like this one that shows the bristle feathers around a Blackburnian warbler’s bill.

But you need more than good equipment to get this result. You need skill.

Thanks for allowing me to use your great photos, Chuck.  (p.s. Happy Birthday!)

(photo by Chuck Tague)

He’s Back!

It’s “All Peregrines, All the Time” now that the nestlings are having adventures.

This morning at 6:58am our Interpid Explorer Chick appeared topside again.  The lure of food was just too much to keep him down.  His brothers were having a noisy breakfast and he was determined not to miss it.

While Momma’s back was turned he jumped up to the nestrail and shrieked for food even louder than his brothers.   He was so hungry that he rushed to the back of the nest and ate two scraps before he moved front and center to get his share.  See him on the video archive here on YouTube.

Now that he’s back I’m sure he has tales to tell.  On Sunday, about an hour after he fell into the gully he was seen on camera below the nest.

While there he explored all the corners of the spacious floor and ate all the scraps of food.  By this morning he was probably out of scraps and had had enough.

Ta dah!  I’m back!  Now feed me!

Good boy.

(photos from the National Aviary falconcam at the University of Pittsburgh, video from (Can anyone tell me how to link directly to this specific hotspot at WildEarth?))


“Careful there,” says Dorothy.  Well, he wasn’t… but he’s OK.

Yesterday morning one of the three Pitt peregrine chicks lost his balance on the nest rail and fell into the gully two feet below.  Whoops!

Don’t worry.  He’s in a safe place.  This has happened before.

In 2010 Dorothy and E2 had a crowded nest of five chicks.  On May 25 Green Boy was snoozing on the nest rail when one of his siblings bumped him off the railing during wing exercises.  He was six days older than this chick at the time.

Parent birds respond to these incidents based on the chick’s situation.  In all cases they urge him to move to a safe zone, often by withholding food or using it as a delicious enticement. At cliff nests peregrine nestlings sometimes tumble to a lower ledge and their parents feed them there until they fledge.

Since Green Boy was old enough to ledge walk, Dorothy and E2 wanted him to climb back up to the nest.  They withheld food — from all the chicks — for four and a half hours until he figured it out.

This nestling is younger than Green Boy so Dorothy and E2 may decide to feed him in place.  There’s a lot of room under the nest and there are pathways to even larger open zones where he can eventually walk up the bulwark and return to the nest.  He’s probably finding fallen food down there, too.

So now we’ll wait and see what happens.  When you hear scuffling on the falconcam and no one’s moving, remember our explorer under the nest.

(photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh, video from the archives of See note below.)

p.s.  To see what happened when he fell, click on the photo above.  I put yesterday’s archive on YouTube because I can’t figure out how to get the specific link from WildEarth.  Anyone know?


Egad it’s hot!

The temperature is 15 degrees above normal this weekend.  Tomorrow is Memorial Day but it feels like the Fourth of July.  By 11:00am it’s not fun to be outdoors so I go inside to cool off in the air conditioning.  But birds don’t have that option.  How do they cope with heat?

They pant.

Birds’ body temperatures are slightly higher than ours — about 104oF (40oC) versus our 98.6oF.   They don’t have sweat glands so they lose heat in other ways.  Dorothy’s showing us how in this photo taken on Banding Day:

  • Sleek the contour feathers so they transfer heat away from the body rather than retain it,
  • Expose the legs (and toes in Dorothy’s case) to let heat leave the skin,
  • Hold the wings away from the body,
  • And pant.

To keep heat at bay birds hide in the shade or soar high into cooler air.  Some large birds, such as vultures, cool their legs by excreting on them.  The small birds in my backyard cool their legs by hopping into my birdbath.

The Pitt peregrine chicks can’t fly to a birdbath, but you’ll see them on camera hiding in the shade and panting.

Until the weather breaks we’re all looking for relief.

(photo by Donna Memon)

E2’s Wing Gap

On May 2 I wrote that Karen Lang and I had seen a third peregrine annoying The Cathedral of Learning pair and that E2 attacked the intruder and chased him away.

Soon after the incident we noticed that E2’s left wing had a gap in it, probably from the aerial fight.

Thanks to Peter Bell here’s what it looks like.

If you watch E2 flying, the gap isn’t always visible because the two primary feathers are still present.  Attached but bent, they flop a little.  Fortunately the damage doesn’t seem to affect his ability to fly and hunt.

Chances are good the gap will disappear after he molts this summer and replaces those two feathers.

(photo by Peter Bell)

Armed And Ready

Every spring male red-winged blackbirds make sure they are large and loud.  If they do it right, they look like this.

The goal is to obtain the very best nesting territory and attract the most mates.  Yes, red-winged blackbirds are polygamous.  The winners have large harems, up to 15 wives.

The males compete by display and song. With feathers fluffed, epaulets raised, wings curved down, and tail lowered, they sing from a perch or flutter slowly over their domain.

The male looks large on purpose.  The smaller males are losers even if they have large, red epaulets.

How does a male red-winged blackbird make himself look like this?

I paused to watch one do it at Magee Marsh early this month.  Standing on the ground he shook his body side-to-side like a wet dog shedding water.  Every few shakes he paused to allow his feathers to stand out a little more.  His black body grew bigger and shinier. His red epaulets stood up like shields.

Armed and ready, like a black spaceship with red headlights, he flew to his perch and sang.

(photo by Len Blumin from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original)

Three Boys, No Girls


You could have knocked me over with a feather. I was sure this year’s peregrine chicks at the Cathedral of Learning were a mix of males and females. Nope. At the Banding we learned all three are male.

The event began as usual. The PA Game Commission’s Beth Fife and Doug Dunkerley advanced to the nest while Dorothy and E2 tried to strafe them. Doug held up a broom to be the highest point for the adults to attack but neither tried to hit it.  Instead Dorothy landed on the ledge.

“Stay away from my babies!”


Beth collected the chicks and sent them indoors, then she began to clean the nest.

Just when Beth was handling the unhatched egg, Dorothy jumped too close and Beth had to capture her.  The egg broke against Beth’s shirt.  Whew, it was rotten!


It was a good thing Dorothy came in for a checkup.  She had some parasitic insects under her wings (caught from prey) and now they’re gone.  Thanks to Dr. Bob Wagner for the health check!   Here’s Dorothy having her armpits examined.


The three chicks were given health checks, weighed and banded.  They are three healthy boys.


In less than a hour they were back in the nest.  Another successful year.  🙂

(Thanks to Pat Szczepanski for the first three photos.  The next two were from my cellphone.)


UPDATE:  23 May, 4:15pm,   More photos!

These two photos from Donna Memon show how Dorothy & E2 feel about Banding Day…
(You tell ’em, Dorothy! Cool flying, E2!)


…And how cute baby peregrines are.  (Smiling for another camera.)

(two photos by Donna Memon)

Pitt Peregrine Banding Today

These cute peregrine chicks don’t know it but today is going to be very exciting.  They’ll be taken from their nest (oh no!) and they’ll get some new jewelry.  Today is banding day.

When the event begins you’ll hear a lot of commotion on the streaming webcam and the chicks will run to the back of the nest. Then you’ll see PA Game Commission WCO Beth Fife appear on screen to collect them in a covered box to take indoors.

Dorothy and E2 will be loud and upset even though this happens every year and their chicks are always returned to them.  The good news about their reaction is this:  They’re teaching their kids that humans are dangerous, a very good lesson for a bird to learn.

In less than an hour the chicks will be returned to the nest with some nice new jewelry on their legs, just like Mom’s and Dad’s.  And then the whole peregrine family will calm down and the chicks will sleep.

Watch my blog late today for an update with news and pictures.

(photo from the National Aviary falconcam at the University of Pittsburgh)