Masked ducks (Nomonyx dominicus) are found at ponds and small lakes from Mexico to South America and in the Caribbean. These elusive birds are sometimes in south Texas where I missed my chance to see one.
Male common yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas) are easy to identify by their masks but the females and juveniles don’t wear one. The unmasked birds are so confusing.
In late October cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are still here in Pittsburgh though in smaller numbers. Their faces are ready for the masquerade ball.
Can you think of other masked birds?
(photo credits: Masked boobies and masked duck from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals. Laughing falcon by Bert Dudley. Common yellowthroat by Steve Gosser. Cedar waxwing by Cris Hamilton.)
Here’s a surprising thing: The ancestors of whales were land-based walking animals that fell in love with water. In the ensuing 50 million years successive species spent more and more time at sea, eventually lost their legs, and now resemble fish. (No, they aren’t fish. They just resemble them.)
How did they change from land to sea? To solve the mystery, paleontologists closely examined the fossil record looking for the one trait that only whales have: the unique bony structure of the whale’s inner ear. A fossil found in 1981 provided the missing link.
Shown below are two of the whale’s ancestral relatives. Not direct ancestors, the diagram shows where those two fit on the family tree. Whales are labelled #1. Animal #2 looks like a dog. #3 looks like a whale.
The change from species to species was incredibly slow.
If we could go back in time 50 million years to the Early Eocene we’d meet Pakicetus inachus (#2), below. First discovered in Pakistan in 1981, he looks like a long-headed dog but he has the whale’s special inner ear. Scientists hypothesize that he lived on land but spent time up to his eyes in water hiding from predators.
Fast forward 10 million years to the Late Eocene to see Dorudon atrax (#3), an ancestral whale that spent his entire life in water. His body was fish-shaped, his tail had flukes, and since he never walked his hind legs were small, almost an afterthought.
From “the fish walked” to the walker that became fish-like, whales turn our misconceptions about evolution on their head. Evolution doesn’t “make progress” from simple water-based organisms to us land-based humans at the pinnacle of development. It’s just any change over time.
The program follows Helen Macdonald, author of the award-winning book H is for Hawk, as she decides that now’s the time to train a new goshawk. But this will be different.
Ten years earlier while mourning her father’s death she acquired and trained a goshawk named Mabel. Goshawks are so difficult to work with that most falconers do not take them on. The book tells of Macdonald’s journey through grief and healing as she bonds with her fierce, inspiring hawk.
Mabel died before the book was finished and Macdonald thought she’d never have a goshawk again, but now things have changed. “After a big bereavement you fall apart and have to remake yourself,” she says. “The person in the book isn’t really me anymore.” Indeed this chapter is a journey of joy.
Beautiful and evocative, we thrill with Macdonald as she watches goshawks nesting in the wild and cheer as she and her new goshawk, Lupin, grow and bond.
Tuesday evening (October 23) Michelle Kienholz sent me the photo below of a huge flock of crows flying over Schenley Park toward CMU at 6pm. See those specks above the horizon? Hundreds of them!
Yes, it’s late October and the crows are back in Pittsburgh for the winter. This is just the beginning of the flock. More will follow.
In the next few weeks the crows will move their roost several times until they settle on a favorite safe place. Meanwhile, you’ll see them at dawn and dusk flying down the Allegheny River valley and through Oakland.
Last week coyotes made a splash in my Pittsburgh neighborhood when one appeared in early October. Frank Gottlieb mentioned his sighting on Nextdoor, Luanne Lavelle photographed one behind her house (above) and Crystal Barry zoomed in on this one at the edge of the road (below). It may be the same animal moving around.
Have coyotes suddenly arrived in the city? Are they something we should worry about? No and no. Here’s their fascinating story.
Eastern coyotes (Canis latrans) look like gray to reddish-brown husky dogs though they are smaller, have a different head shape, and never curl up their tails. About a third larger than western coyotes, the eastern species weighs 35 to 55 pounds from the smallest female to the largest male.
The eastern coyotes’ appearance, size, and presence in Pennsylvania are all human-induced traits caused by our actions toward wild canines and the landscape.
Humans eradicated wolves, mountain lions and deer from Pennsylvania by the late 1800’s. Coyotes don’t do well where wolves are in charge but during the low ebb of both populations coyotes and wolves hybridized in Ontario resulting in a larger animal with a wider range of prey.
Meanwhile Pennsylvania reintroduced deer whose population soared by the 1930s, expanding to suburbs and cities 60 years later. Wolves and mountain lions did not come back to Pennsylvania but eastern coyotes moved into the deer-eating niche. Coyotes came to Pennsylvania in the 1930s and covered the state by the 1990s.
When did coyotes enter Pittsburgh city limits? I heard of one in 2003; probably not the first.
Why do we see coyotes in October? Fall is the time of year when coyote families disperse. The young, full size at 9 months old, move away and hunt alone in fall and winter then pair up at two years old to raise a family. Smart coyotes hide from humans but some young ones haven’t learned that lesson yet.
Are coyotes dangerous? Not to us humans but myths abound, apparently borrowed from our myths about wolves. No, coyotes won’t eat your kids. No, coyotes won’t lure your big dog away to eat him. (Coyotes play with big dogs (video). Their DNA is 10% domestic dog.) No, coyotes will not stay away from your neighborhood if you remove the one you’ve seen. (New coyotes will arrive to take its place.)
However, coyotes will take a small pet if it looks easy to do. If you’re really worried about coyotes, here’s how to discourage them from visiting your yard:
Don’t leave any food outdoors. Enclose your garbage. Don’t leave pet food out. Don’t feed any wildlife. If you attract mice or rats (bird seed), rodents will attract coyotes.
Watch your small dog when you let it out in the backyard. Keep your cat indoors.
If you see a coyote, shout and wave your arms. Shoo it away. Don’t try to befriend a coyote. Keep them wild.
Coyotes are smart and our pressure against them makes them smarter. Appreciate them from afar.