All posts by Kate St. John

Instead of Turkeys

Catch me if you can! Male ring-necked pheasant, Nov 2020 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Thanksgiving Day, 26 November 2020

This month bird photographer friends Steve Gosser and Cris Hamilton have not taken many pictures of wild turkeys in western Pennsylvania but they have certainly found photogenic ring-necked pheasants. As Steve said on Facebook:

The last two weekends I’ve been driving around everywhere trying to find some of the rare winter finches currently moving down through our area, but all I keep finding are Pheasants. 

Steve Gosser on Facebook, 15 November 2020

Males pheasants are bold and colorful with blue head feathers that they can raise like horns (click here to see).

Male ring-necked pheasant, Nov 2020 (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Ring-necked pheasant pauses for a beauty shot, Nov 2020 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

The females are brown but not boring. Both sexes perk up when a human appears on the scene, pausing and staring as if to say, “What is that person doing?” Sometimes they run.

Female ring-necked pheasant, Nov 2020 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Female ring-necked pheasant stepping out (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Native to Asia, ring-necked pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) were introduced as game birds in Europe, North America, Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand (see map). They’ve never become invasive because the pen-raised birds lack the survival skills they need to make it long term in the wild. Pausing to stare is probably their downfall.

Why are ring-necked pheasants so plentiful in western PA? They’re stocked every year by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Here are some high counts of ring-necked pheasant releases in 2019:

  • 1,470 at SGL 203 in Marshall Twp Allegheny County
  • 3,640 at SGL 95 (The Glades) in Butler County
  • 1,920 at SGL 284 (Schollards Wetlands / Pennsy Swamp / Black Swamp) in Mercer / Lawrence County

Click on the screenshot to see the interactive map of 2019 pheasant releases or here for the list of releases in 2020.

Cheers to ring-necked pheasants.

Happy Thanksgiving!

p.s. I’m thankful for all the photographers who let me use their photos. These are by Steve Gosser and Cris Hamilton.

Separating The Seeds From The Floss

Milkweed seed pods, December 2011 (photo by Kate St. John)

25 November 2020

Looking for something to do this Thanksgiving weekend? You could help next year’s monarch butterflies by planting milkweed in your garden.

Milkweed seeds have to get cold before they’ll germinate (cold stratification) so late fall is the best time to plant them outdoors. Take a walk and gather some milkweed pods. (Leave some behind for nature!) Remove the floss and plant the seeds.

Separating the floss from the seeds can be time consuming if you don’t know these tips.

When the pods are about to burst you can pop them open, grab the bundle tightly and push the seeds off with your thumb.

However, many pods have already burst in southwestern Pennsylvania so you’ll want to use a “mechanical” method to separate the floss.

Milkweed pod burst open (photo by Kate St. John)

For small batches, shake the fluff+seeds with coins in a paper bag or a food storage container.

Enormous batches call for enormous solutions, as demonstrated by Monarch Watch. Yow!

Since I’m not a gardener I have no advice about planting milkweed but here’s an excellent article that tells you everything you need to know: How to Germinate and Grow Milkweed Seeds by American Meadows.

UPDATE: Several people have recommended planting Swamp Milkweed instead of Common Milkweed because it’s a much easier plant. See Claire’s comment below.

p.s. The floss is beautiful but annoying when it flies around indoors. If it gets away from you, it will give you more to do this weekend. 😉

(photos by Kate St. John)

The Trees With Leaves Are…

Yellow leaves and bare trees, Schenley Park, 23 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

24 November 2020

By now all the leaves have fallen in the Pittsburgh area. Or have they? There are still a few trees with bright yellow leaves in Schenley Park — Norway maples.

As their name implies Norway maples (Acer platanoides) were imported from Europe where their native range extends further north than Pittsburgh.  Our short November days are the same length as those they experience in October back home.  The sun will be up for 9 hours and 39 minutes today, 24 November, in western Pennsylvania.  That’s the day length on 21 October in Oslo, Norway.

Right now our native trees are bare or retain just a few yellow leaves at the very top (tuliptrees) or dried brown leaves overall (oaks and beeches).

Because non-native plants are out of synch with our seasons late November is the best time of year to see them in the landscape.

The trees with leaves are aliens!

Fun fact: Pittsburgh’s latitude is very far south of Scandinavia. Did you know we are on the same latitude as Madrid, Spain?

Quiz: What North American city is nearly the same latitude as London, England? The answer is surprising.

(photo by Kate St. John)

The Virus That Kills Birds

  • Ruffed grouse (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As we struggle with a nearly out-of-control coronavirus pandemic I was stunned to learn there’s an equally deadly virus among birds. The discovery came when I found the answer to Craig’s question: “Kate, why is the ruffed grouse population in decline in Pennsylvania? Habitat destruction?” No, West Nile Virus is killing them off.

West Nile Virus arrived in North America more than 20 years ago and spread across the continent in just five years, killing native raptors and songbirds in its wake. When it struck Pittsburgh’s bird community in 2002 it was fairly common to find dead crows. That was a long time ago and I don’t see dead crows anymore so I thought birds were now able to survive the virus. Instead a 2015 study found that West Nile Virus is still wiping out birds in North America. It affects each species differently.

Some such as wild turkeys, chickens and house sparrows had a die-off when the virus arrived and then recovered with apparent immunity. Others never developed that resilience. The virus ravages their bodies so quickly that they die without reproducing.

The birds in the slideshow above are some of WNV’s most devastated victims. Every year their populations decline in a downward spiral. Greater sage-grouse and yellow-billed magpies have such restricted ranges that WNV may push them to extinction. This explains why I haven’t seen so many warbling vireos, purple finches and American goldfinches as I did a decade ago.

In 2016 the PA Game Commission studied the plight of the ruffed grouse and found that birds never exposed to WNV had only a 10% survival rate. This 9-minute video tells the whole story.

It’s ironic that we worried so much about West Nile virus when it’s actually a bird disease. Read more about West Nile Virus In Birds at

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, J. Maughn, Steve Gosser and Chuck Tague,)

Sunrise, Ice, First Snow

Sunrise, 19 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

22 November 2020

Last week it was again both cold and warm.

At dawn on Thursday morning, 19 November, sunrise lit the clouds after a clear, cold night. Ice had started to form on Schenley Park’s Panther Hollow Lake. It was 6 degrees below normal on the day before.

First ice on Panther Hollow Lake, Schenley Park, 19 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Two days earlier we had our first daytime snow in the city.

By Friday 20 November the temperature was 17 degrees above normal(*).

No more ice.

(photos and video by Kate St. John)

(*) The normal average on 20 November is 41 degrees F in Pittsburgh.

Five Weeks of Peregrine Activity

  • Terzo, 20 Oct 2020 (snapshot from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

21 November 2020

Now that I live in Oakland I see the Pitt peregrines when I walk around the neighborhood. Morela is a regular, of course. Last week Terzo appeared almost every evening at 4:30pm, circling the Cathedral of Learning and zooming up to a high perch. It’s a joy to see him.

I began to wonder if he was the only male peregrine at Pitt but a look at five weeks of snapshots indicates Ecco has been present, too. I’ve put their appearances in the slideshow above.

The calendar shows that Terzo is more frequent: Terzo = blue, Ecco = green. Amazingly, both of them were present on 22 October 2020.

Visits to the Pitt peregrine nest by Terzo (blue) and Ecco (green), Oct & Nov 2020 (calendar layout from

We still have two male peregrines at Pitt. It’s still not a normal year.

(snapshots from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh. Blank calendar from

Coronavirus: The Fire Is Out Of Control

(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 November 2020

When COVID-19 surged in Allegheny County in late June I wrote about the coronavirus as one very, very difficult forest fire. That surge ended and summer was good. We were able to eat together outdoors. We became complacent. Yet the fire still smouldered waiting to erupt. And now it has.

On Tuesday 17 November 2020 the White House Coronavirus Task Force said:

“There is now aggressive, unrelenting, expanding, broad community spread across the country reaching most counties, with no evidence of improvement, but rather deterioration. Current mitigation efforts are inadequate and must be increased to flatten the curve to sustain the health system for COVID and non-COVID emergencies.”

White House Coronavirus Task Force report, 17 Nov 2020

Allegheny County saw a record-setting surge in the last 5 days and is now under a stay-at-home advisory. If we can’t turn the tide in Pennsylvania we’re in danger of running out of ICU beds all at the same time.

How severe is the pandemic where you live? This map from shows risk levels by U.S. congressional district per 100,000 people as of 20 Nov 2020 at 7am. Red is bad!

“How severe is the pandemic where you live?” Risk level by U.S. cogressional district, 20 Nov 2020 (screenshot from

The coronavirus fire is so out of control that there are some U.S. counties where in a group of 15 people you have a 99% chance of eating Thanksgiving dinner with someone infected with COVID-19. Think about that. You can’t eat with a mask on. 15 people, 99% chance of COVID in the room. What if someone in your family comes from one of those counties?

Every current news article about the virus says that private gatherings are now a major force driving new infections.

And so I’m going to join with many other voices and say, Don’t gather at Thanksgiving.

Two vaccines are almost ready. We could lose loved ones if we gather at Thanksgiving this year. Next Thanksgiving will be fine. Is it worth having Mom die this year when *one time* of carefulness would have avoided it?

Connie Schultz says it really well in This Thanksgiving, Choose Love.

This is the year to focus on the gratitude part of Thanksgiving. Let’s start with the people we love. Not tolerate. Love.

Make that list, and then ask yourself, “Which of these people am I willing to lose?”

Do the right thing. I’m begging you.

This Thanksgiving, Choose Love by Connie Schultz

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, map from; click on the images to see the originals)

Clouds Radiate Heat

Night sky photo from Wikimedia Commons, arrows and text added

Now that the weather is colder here’s something to ponder: Why is it warmer on a cloudy night?

Some people say it’s warmer because clouds act like a blanket to hold in the heat but that’s not scientifically true.

Clouds are not holding in heat. They are emitting it!

Clouds absorb heat during the day just as the earth does. When the temperature falls clouds emit heat in all directions including downward to us below. Their warmth can be just enough to keep us above freezing.

On a clear night there is nothing to warm us so we have frost in the morning.

Did you know you can avoid frost on your windshield if you park beneath a tree on clear, near-freezing nights? The tree is emitting heat, too. No frost in the morning.

Either it is very cold in this picture or the car was not parked under a tree.

Frost on a car windshield, London (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Read more about cloud blankets and other scientific “facts” that aren’t true at Dan Satterfield’s Wild Wild Science Journal.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Now The Rain Gets In

18 November 2020

It didn’t rain much last July but when it did I noticed something puzzling on the Pitt peregrine falconcam(*). The nest was getting wet where it ought to be dry. Was the roof leaking?

A week ago the problem became acute when it rained hard all day on 11 November. By the end of the day pieces of brown debris were on the nest surface, probably from the roof. Now the rain really gets in!

If you look closely at falconcam still photos you can see papery pieces of roof hanging from above, erosion in the right corner where the rain drips, and debris from the roof on the nest surface.

Though we can’t see the roof from either camera, a snapshot of the awning gives us a hint of the roof’s condition. The red circle shows a place that lost its waterproof coating, exposing the under layer. The awning is deteriorating too, though more slowly.

The nestbox was built and installed in late 2007 (or early January 2008) after the Cathedral of Learning was spray-washed. I believe the box and walls are made of solid plastic but the roof and awning appear to be a composite material that has been weathering for 13 years.

This fall we’ll arrange for repairs so the nestbox is in good condition for the 2021 nesting season. Like maintaining a very small home, repairs are inevitable.

(*) Streaming of the Pitt peregrine falconcam is seasonal. It ended for the year on 31 July 2020.

(snapshots from the National Aviary falconcams at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Love Those Fries

Crow with a French fry (screenshot from rattyvonratkins24 video)

17 November 2020

When thousands of crows come to town for the winter what do they find to eat?

Every morning they wake up in the city and spread out during the day to find food near and far. Some travel 10-20 miles to glean from fields and landfills. Others raid dumpsters, prowl parking lots, or poke holes in garbage bags waiting for neighborhood collection.

Up to 65% of an urban crow’s diet is made up of human food and we sure make a lot of it available. Nothing is faster than fast food, especially fries.

Some crows like to dunk their fries.

They are not daunted by paper bags. In this video by Quiscalus a flock of fish crows fights over a bag of fries until the herring gulls take over. I’ve seen this happen in Virginia Beach.

There’s even a 12-foot statue honoring their preference. Crow With Fries by Peter Reiquam was installed in Auburn, Washington on 31 May 2019. (See more at Reiquam’s website.)

Junk food raises crows’ cholesterol but doesn’t seem to have an adverse health effect, at least during the two years of this study.

Love those fries!

(screenshot from YouTube video, statue photo from Reddit; click on the captions to see the originals)