Starfish Have No Arms

Common starfish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 December 2023

When you look at a starfish it is obvious that its body is arranged like the five spokes of a wheel. This is also true of its fellow enchinoderms sea urchins and sand dollars.

Sea urchin endoskeleton (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Sand dollar (photo by Kate St. John)

As larvae starfish are bilateral just like us, but when they grow up they change.

Most animals, including humans, have a distinct head end and tail end, with a line of symmetry running down the middle of their body dividing it into two mirror-image halves. Animals with this two-sided symmetry are called bilaterians.

Echinoderms, on the other hand, have five lines of symmetry radiating from a central point and no physically obvious head or tail. Yet they are closely related to animals like us and evolved from a bilaterian ancestor. Even their larvae are bilaterally symmetrical, later radically reorganizing their bodies as they metamorphose into adults.

NewScientist: Starfish don’t have a body – they’re just a big squished head

Scientists were curious about how the animal formed five arms so they examined the genes on the body surface of the bat star (Patiria miniata) …

Patiria miniata (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… and were surprised to find that the the entire animal, from center to tips of the arms, expresses as “head” genes. There are no torso or limb genes. As Science Magazine put it, “Genetically speaking, starfish have no arms — only a head.

The findings show that “the body of an echinoderm, at least in terms of the external body surface, is essentially a head walking about the seafloor on its lips”, says Thurston Lacalli at the University of Victoria in Canada.

NewScientist: Starfish don’t have a body – they’re just a big squished head
Starfish – sea star – mosaic showing diversity of the class Asteroidea (photo from Wikimedia)

Read more in NewScientist: Starfish don’t have a body – they’re just a big squished head

Why Do 1000’s of Crows Roost in Town?

Three American crows (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

10 December 2023

When 20,000 crows come to Pittsburgh for the winter, they have to sleep somewhere and they inevitably make a mess. Why do they roost near us where the mess will get on our nerves? Why don’t they sleep in the woods? Let’s take a look the reasons crows choose one location over another when it’s time to sleep.

Crows have a few simple requirements for a roost and they all have to come together at the same place. Safety is a big one. Crows want:

  1. Tall trees for roosting
  2. Warmth when it’s cold
  3. No great horned owls!
  4. Safety in numbers
  5. Night lights. Lots of them.
  6. White noise at the roost
  7. No harassment from humans

1. Tall trees for roosting: Crows prefer to roost at the very top of mature trees. They perch on the highest twigs that support their weight.

Crows coming to the roost, Pittsburgh, 2017 (photo by Sharon Leadbitter)

2. Warmth when it’s cold: When the weather is well below freezing trees are too exposed for a good night’s sleep so crows may choose rooftops instead. Cities are warmer than the surrounding countryside due to the urban heat island effect.

Crows on the roof (photo courtesy Crows’ Call at University of Washington, Bothnell)

3. No great horned owls! Crows are terrified of great horned owls who can hunt them in the dark. They prefer places that great horned owls avoid.

Great horned owl (photo by Alan Wolf via Flickr, CC license)

4. Safety in numbers: Crows sleep in a crowd so that someone’s always awake to watch for owls. It also lowers the odds of an individual being eaten.

Crows asleep near Heinz Chapel by the light of the Supermoon, Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

5. Night lights. Lots of them: Crows like to sleep with the lights on. It’s easier to watch for owls when you can see them coming. There are no nightlights in the woods.

Crows in a tree on Thackeray Ave, Pittsburgh, 2011 (photo by Peter Bell)

6. White noise at the roost: In addition to night lights, crows want white noise at the roost(*), the sound of running water or traffic. This location along Fifth Avenue at the University of Pittsburgh combines all their requirements in one place. Except that the mess bothers humans.

Crows roosting along Fifth Avenue in the trees at Pitt, Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

7. No harassment from humans: The perfect roost is usually near humans but crows make an enormous mess that people have to clean up. When the crows wear out their welcome, people figure out ways to get them to leave. This includes loud abrupt noises such as clappers and bangers, flashing lights, and harassment by falconers’ birds.

Clappers used to disperse crows (photo courtesy Alex Toner, Univ of Pittsburgh)
screenshot from video Falconry moves the crows in Portland, OR

Now that we know what crows want at a roost we can figure out where they’re likely to be. Convincing them to leave is much easier to do before they land. 😉

(*) p.s. Why do crows want white noise when they sleep? No one has explained it but I have a theory that great horned owls avoid white noise. Owls need to hear their prey when they’re hunting and white noise makes that impossible.

Seen This Week

Sky reflected on Panther Hollow Lake, Schenley Park, 8 Dec 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

9 December 2023

There were just hints of ice floating on Panther Hollow Lake yesterday morning when the water reflected blue sky and whispy clouds.

Yesterday was unusually beautiful after the tumult of hail and thunder during the Steelers game last Sunday 3 December. After the storm a double rainbow glowed in the east.

Double rainbow on 3 Dec 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

The pot of gold seemed to be on Morewood Avenue.

The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is at Morewood Avenue, 3 Dec 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

If you look closely in the double rainbow photo you can see crows flying just above the trees.

Crows have become less reliable in my neighborhood since they moved the roost about a month ago. When they came through after the storm I went out to see them, counted 3,000 and recorded a video.

Crows flying toward the roost at dusk, 3 December 2023, Shadyside, Pittsburgh (video by Kate St .John)

Only 3 WEEKS until Pittsburgh’s Christmas Bird (Crow!) Count. The crows are getting tricky. Keep me posted! Thanks to Carol S for reporting them at North Shore last night.

p.s. If the reflection in the top photo is puzzling, here’s another perspective.

Sky and bridge reflected in Panther Hollow Lake, Schenley Park, 8 Dec 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

On The Front Porch

Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)
Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)

8 December 2023

If you live in Central America you may find this bird on your front porch.

Happy Friday!

Start Counting! Christmas Bird Counts 2023

Screenshot from Join the Christmas Bird Count at (Photo: Luke Franke/Audubon)

7 December 2023

Songbird migration ended last month but there’s birding fun ahead in the coming weeks. Join Audubon’s 124rd annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) from Dec 14, 2023 to January 5, 2024!

Date span of the 2023 Christmas Bird Count (calendar images from

Visit one (or more) of the >2,500 count circles in North America. Each circle has its own compiler who coordinates the count for a single scheduled day within the 15-mile radius. No experience is necessary. The only prerequisite is that you must contact the circle compiler in advance to reserve your place.

Screenshot of 124th Christmas Bird Count map from

Go birding outdoors or, if you live in a Count Circle, stay home and count birds at your feeder. Click here and enter your home address to find out what circle you’re in. (If you’re within a circle, click on the colored bird icon to see date, time and contact information.)

Follow the instructions here at to sign up.

If you live in the Pittsburgh area you may be interested in one of these counts.

Screenshot of 124th Christmas Bird Count map from, zoomed in to Pittsburgh, PA

These circles touch Allegheny County:

  • South Hills, 16 Dec 2023
  • Buffalo Creek Valley, 16 Dec 2023
  • Imperial CBC, 17 Dec 2023
  • Mon Valley, 17 Dec 2023
  • Pittsburgh CBC, 30 Dec 2023
  • South Butler, 31 Dec 2023

For more information visit Audubon Society of Western PA’s Christmas Bird Count page or click here for details on National Audubon’s CBC map.

Join the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count on 30 December 2023 (map below). To participate contact Brian Shema at the Audubon Society of Western PA at 412-963-6100 or

Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count circle (map from

Sign up now! We’ll be counting soon.

(photo from 2024 Audubon Christmas Bird Count webpage, maps from; click on the captions to see the originals)

Buckeyes and Horse Chestnuts

Two Buckeyes: Horsechestnut (large) and bottlebrush buckeye (small), photographed three months after harvest by Kate St. John

6 December 2023

The Nutty Series: Buckeyes are the Aesculus genus

Buckeyes have always been one of my favorite objects because their skin is smooth and shiny fresh out of the husk, perfect to carry in my pocket like a worry stone.

In America, the native Aesculus are commonly
called “buckeyes,” a name derived from the
resemblance of the shiny seed to the eye of a
deer [a buck’s eye]. In the Old World, they’re called “horse
chestnuts”—a name that arose from the belief
that the trees were closely related to edible
chestnuts (Castanea species), and because the
seeds were fed to horses as a medicinal treatment for chest complaints and worm diseases.

Arboretum FOundation (in Seattle): The Many Faces of Aesculus

In Pittsburgh we call all of them “buckeyes.”

Let’s go backwards in the growing season from nut to husk, flower and leaf by examining buckeyes planted in Schenley Park more than 100 years ago.

The large nut pictured at top left is from a European horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) native to Albania, Bulgaria, mainland Greece and North Macedonia. Each husk contains one to three nuts. Sometimes they’re flat on one side. My favorites are the round ones.

Horsechestnut husks and nuts (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On the tree, horse chestnut husks are spiny.

Horsechestnut fruit on the tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They’re produced from the white flowers that have pink (already fertilized) highlights. Notice that each leaf has seven fat leaflets. The number and shape of the leaflets indicate this is a horsechestnut.

Horse chestnut flowers and leaves (photo by Kate St. John)

In winter horse chestnuts are easy to identify by their large, sticky end buds.

Hose chestnut twig and buds (photo by Paul Wray, Iowa State University,

The yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava) is native to the Appalachians and Ohio Valley and is North America’s tallest buckeye tree at 70 feet. Planted as an ornamental in Schenley Park it can hybridize with its shorter cousin, the Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra), making identification difficult for non-botanists like me.

Yellow and Ohio buckeye nuts look a lot like horse chestnuts. Seeing the husk is a big help because yellow buckeye husks are smooth …

Yellow buckeye nuts in the husk (photo by Wendy VanDyk Evans,

… while Ohio buckeye husks are slightly spiny. The narrow leaves also indicate a native buckeye. (Yes, the leaves looked sick that year.)

Ohio buckeye fruits on the tree, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Their flowers are pale yellow (not white) and narrower than the horse chestnut’s. (*)

Yellow or Ohio buckeye flowers (I cannot tell which (*)) photo by Kate St. John

Yellow buckeye buds are large but not sticky. They’re one of the first to leaf out in the spring.

Yellow buckeye buds and leaf out at Schenley Park, 5 April 2022

Ohio buckeye buds are strongly keeled.

Ohio buckeye bud (photo by T. Davis Sydnor, The Ohio State University,

For a summary of nine common buckeyes (Aesculus) used in landscaping see The Spruce: What is a Buckeye?

p.s. The small buckeye nut in the top photo is from the shrub-sized bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora), planted in Schenley Park near Panther Hollow Lake. Click here to learn more.

(*) Which Flowers? I could not tell whether the flower photo was yellow or Ohio buckeye. Mary Ann Pike suggests Ohio buckeye in this comment.

Fewer Deer In The Road

Deer crossing sign on a residential street (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

5 December 2023

Back in early September I urged us all to start paying attention and Be Careful Out There! Deer in the Road. Deer were restless in the run-up to the rut and had started to move around. From late October through November they mindlessly crossed in front of traffic, but now in early December the bulk of the rut is over and soon (if not already) there are fewer deer in the road. We can almost relax our vigilance because …

Chasing each other: During the rut — October and November — bucks roam in search of mates and chase does on the move. Driven by hormones, all of them ignore vehicles in the heat of sexual pursuit.

Deer crossing the road in northwestern Ohio (photo by Starley Shelton via Flickr Creative Commons license)

After the rut deer calm down and return to their home range where they stay December to September. Home ranges in Pennsylvania’s forests are approximately 800 acres (a 1.2 mile radius) and in urban areas just 100-300 acres. Even if the range includes road crossing(s) deer are not chasing each other and they know about cars. Many now watch and wait for traffic. Females that pay attention to vehicles live to reproduce and teach their fawns to watch and wait (when it’s not the rut).

Not running from hunters: Some people say that deer run into traffic to get away from hunters but studies have shown that the animals use a completely different strategy.

Since 2013 Penn State’s Deer-Forest Study has tagged and tracked more than 1,200 white-tailed deer around 100 square miles of Pennsylvania forest. In the process they’ve learned that successful deer, the ones that survive hunting seasons, actually know when hunting is about to start and search for a good hiding place in advance. Then each day before dawn (hunters cannot hunt until after dawn) deer go to their hiding places and wait quietly until the afternoon when the hunters have left the woods.

One tracked doe’s hiding spot was incredibly hard for people to reach and impossible to sneak up on. Read about a family’s visit to Hillside Doe’s Hiding Spot.

Watch Hillside Doe’s movements during hunting season. She didn’t have to cross roads to get there.

video posted by Duane Diefenbach on YouTube

Chinstrap Penguins Nap For 4 Seconds … 10,000 Times a Day

Three chinstrap penguins, Orne Islands (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4 December 2023

Lots of animals don’t sleep for long periods like we do but a new study has found a polar opposite in Antarctica (pun intended) where chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antarcticus) take 10,000 4-second naps each day during the breeding season. In this way they accrue 11 hours of daily sleep.

Adult chinstrap penguin with two chicks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

For us, the micronaps would be a form of sleep torture since we cannot enter restorative deep sleep in such a short time. But the chinstrap penguins do.

Researchers led by Won Young Lee, a behavioral ecologist at the Korea Polar Research Institute, captured 14 penguins at the King Georges Island breeding colony and fitted them with data loggers to measure brain activity and accelerometers to record muscle movements and body positions. They also set up cameras to watch for closing eyes and drooping heads.

Partial range map of chinstrap penguin (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Brain waves showed the penguins experience slow wave (deep) sleep during those micro-naps. They nap while incubating or guarding their chicks and even while floating on the ocean.

Chinstrap penguin swimming at Deception Island (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

So now I’m looking at group photos of chinstrap penguins and, sure enough, in every photo some of the adults are sleeping. They’re getting their beauty rest 4 seconds at a time.

Read more in Science Magazine: This Antarctic penguin sleeps 11 hours a day—a few seconds at a time.

How Do Peregrines Increase Accuracy? Fly Faster!

Gusto heads into a stoop, 9 Feb 2022 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

3 December 2023

Peregrines are the fastest animal on earth when they dive at 200 mph to catch their prey in flight. In fact they dive even faster when they’re hunting an evasive bird. The higher speed increases turning force so they’re more accurate at catching prey.

In 2005 Ken Franklin went sky diving with a peregrine to clock its maximum freefall speed at 242 mph (389 km/hr).  In 2018 scientists wanted to study the details of the peregrines’ dive, but it was too hard to do in real time, so they created 3D simulations of a stooping peregrine pursuing a European starling.

The simulations showed that optimal speed for catching a bird in straight flight is 93 mph but if the prey is zig-zagging in the sky the best speed is 225 mph.

You’d think that the higher attack speeds would make it more difficult for falcons to adjust to a moving target. But the opposite turned out to be true: The predators were more maneuverable at higher speeds because they could generate more turning force; only then were they able to outmaneuver the highly agile starlings. So stoops don’t just help falcons quickly overtake prey—they also help the predators change directions.

Science Magazine: Peregrine falcons maneuver best when dive-bombing at more than 300 kilometers per hour

Watch how it works in this video from Science Magazine. You’ll need these equivalents as you watch.

  • 300 km/hr = 186 mph
  • 150 km/hr = 93 mph
  • 360 km/hr = 223+ mph. I rounded up to 225 mph
video from Science Magazine on YouTube

Seen at Some Point

Sunrise seems to pierce Central Catholic’s steeple, 28 Nov 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

2 December 2023

Saturday blogs usually show what I’ve “Seen This Week” but I have only one worthy photo, shown above. For the rest I’ve chosen sights that are timely for the season and seen at some point.

This Wednesday the water was low in the Monongahela River at Duck Hollow, just as it is in this photo from Nov 2020. However the sky was not so blue and it was very cold!

Nine Mile Run outflow at Duck Hollow, 29 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Wednesday’s low was 21°F but today will warm to nearly 60°F. No frost today like the bit shown below from Nov 2021.

Frost on the grass, 4 Nov 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

The trees are bare now and showing off their silhouettes. Here are three typical sights on the cusp of December.

Bare trees at dusk, Schenley Park, 15 Nov 2012 (photo by Kate St. John)

You can identify young American elm trees by their twig arrangement that look like fish skeletons.

Twigs on young American elms look like fish bones, 2 Dec 2012 (photo by Kate St. John)

Black locust trees are always gnarly but this one was made worse when it was trimmed away from the utility wires in 2012.

Black locust tree looks twisted after powerline cutback, 28 Jan 2012 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)