All posts by Kate St. John

If You Think Cowbirds Are Bad …

Just like brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater), common cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) in Eurasia are obligate brood parasites that never raise their young. Cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of smaller birds that foster the cuckoo chicks as their own. A stark difference between cowbirds and cuckoos, though, is their size. Cuckoo chicks can be 10 times larger than their hosts!

Compare the Eurasian reed warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) feeding a common cuckoo chick, above, to the brown headed cowbird chick with its song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) foster parent below.

Brown-headed cowbird chick begging from song sparrow host (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The cowbird is slightly larger than its host but the cuckoo chick when it leaves the nest will be 10 times the reed warbler’s weight.

This situation can be even more bleak, as shown in a Twitter post by John Deakins.

So if you think cowbirds are bad, consider the foster parents of common cuckoos.

p.s. I wish I knew the identity of the foster parent standing on the chick’s back. Can any of you identify it? I believe the photo was taken in the UK.

UPDATE: Janet Campagna suggests meadow pipit, in which case the young cuckoo is 6 times the weight of the foster parent.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons plus an embedded photo from Twitter; click on the captions/tweet to see the originals)

Monitors Needed: Let’s See How Goats Help Birds

Mile-a-minute at Clayton East, 18 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

If you’ve been to Frick Park’s Clayton Hill lately you’ve seen a plant blanketing the open area down east of Clayton Hill Loop. Invasive mile-a-minute (Persicaria perfoliata) was thick on the ground and climbing every upright when I took these photos in July.

Mile-a-minute blankets Frick’s Clayton East, 18 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Even if I wanted to walk through this area I wouldn’t. The plant has thorns.

Mile-a-minute stem (photo by Kate St. John)
Mile-a-minute stem (photo by Kate St. John)

Invasive plants are discouraging but I have hope they’ll be gone some day. The Allegheny Bird Conservation Alliance (ABCA) is conducting a multi-year project to remove invasive plants from Frick Park.

ABCA partners — Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy — are working with Allegheny GoatScape to remove invasive plants like bush honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) from Frick Park at Clayton Hill to restore native forest habitat for birds and other wildlife. Goats will be “working” areas around Clayton Hill during summer and fall 2020 and again in 2021.

ABCA Ongoing Projects

The restoration area is shown on the ABCA map below.

Map of Frick Park restoration zones from ABCA

What’s hard for us to do by hand is easy for Allegheny Goatscape’s goats. They eat anything. Here’s how it works.

Prior to bringing the goats, Allegheny GoatScape clears a fence line and sets up the fencing and a shelter for the animals. The herd arrives at the site and immediately goes to work eating the vegetation. … Once the goats eat through the vegetation on site, they are transported to their next [assignment] location.

Allegheny Goatscape: How It Works
Allegheny Goatscape goats at work (photo from Allegheny Goatscape)

I haven’t seen goats at Frick but the fenced area at Clayton East looks like goats have been inside it. There’s a lot less mile-a-minute inside the fence.

Now that the goat project is underway ABCA wants to know how the birds respond and is asking birders to count birds in the four restoration zones per hotspot in eBird. Observations are especially needed during August and September fall migration.

Let’s see how goats have helped the birds. Find out more, including the eBird hotspots names, at Allegheny Bird Conservation Alliance: Ongoing Projects.

Bring on the goats!

(Mile-a-minute photos by Kate St. John. Goat photo from Allegheny Goatscape. map from ABCA)

Joe-Pye, Jerusalem, and Other Delights

Joe-pye weed (photo by Kate St. John)

The weather was lovely in Schenley Park last week when I found Joe-pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) and Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) in full bloom.

Jerusalem artichoke flower (photo by Kate St. John)

Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) hasn’t bloomed in five months but the leaves are still growing. Some are now three times the size of a real colt’s foot.

Coltsfoot leaves (photo by Kate St. John)

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is blooming and developing fruit.

Pokeweed in bloom (photo by Kate St. John)

But some plants are not faring so well. This porcelain berry has chlorosis, a condition that makes its leaves turn white. This plant is invasive so I don’t feel so bad.

Variegated leaves on porcelain berry, a sign of chlorosis (photo by Kate St. John)

Get outdoors today before the weather gets hot. It will be in the 90s next week!

(photos by Kate St. John)

What’s That Whining Sound?

Juvenile red-tailed hawk, Washington DC, 2017 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Have you heard whining that sounds like this?

Sometimes you hear songbirds calling nearby, “Danger! Watch out!”

In July and early August young red-tailed hawks whine for food. Here’s one in July 2018 at New York’s Botanical Garden with an American robin raising the alarm.

And here’s one on a windowsill in Austin, Texas, July 2011.

Red-tailed hawks raise one brood per year. The female lays eggs in March or April. The eggs hatch in 28-35 days and the young fledge 42-46 days later. That’s when the begging begins.

For three weeks juvenile red-tailed hawks depend on their parents and are not shy about asking for food. Whine!

The whining doesn’t end there. Though the youngsters become increasingly self sufficient they still want a handout if they can get one. Whine! Whine! Whine! Their parents ignore them.

Self sufficiency is the first big hurdle on their way to becoming successful adult red-tails. Some youngsters take longer than others to get the hint.

Meanwhile, whine, whine, whine, WHINE!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. Audio from Xeno Canto, videos from YouTube)

Mixed Up Ducks

Mixed up ducks in Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

One of the challenges of city birding is identifying the mixed up ducks not found in any field guide. These “mutt ducks” are the hybrids of mallards paired with escaped domestic ducks.

It’s easy for domestic ducks to hybridize with mallards because nearly all of them(*) are descended from mallards (Anas platyrhynchos).

Mallard cross with a domestic duck (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Mallards hybridize with wild ducks, too, as shown in this a mallard X gadwall mix.

Mallard X gadwall hybrid Brewer’s duck (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Some ornithologists worry that mallards will hybridize their closest relatives — American black ducks, Mexican ducks and mottled ducks — out of existence, as in this mallard X Mexican duck mix.

Mallard X Mexican duck hybrid (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

But perhaps they’re forgetting how recently those species evolved from mallards. The Mexican duck (Anas diazi) that occurs in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest was thought to be a subspecies of mallard until 1957.

Mallards are just working on creating new species. 😉

Read more about mixed up ducks in this vintage article: Ugly Ducks

(*) Some domestic ducks are descended from Muscovy ducks.

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

Disappearing into Thin Air

  • Lake Mead at Hoover Dam, 1998 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s hard to remember what we worried about before the coronavirus, but long term water crises provoked by climate change are still chugging along in the U.S. West. The most troubling of these is looming at the Colorado River, the water source for over 40 million people.

Many of the seven western states in the Colorado River watershed are suffering under severe to extreme drought. Of course it affects the river.

U.S. Drought Monitor map as of 28 July 2020,

But drought is not the only factor. A study published last February found that 20% of the river flow has been lost to the albedo effect in a period of 20 years.

Albedo is a reflectivity measure of various surfaces as they reflect sunlight back into space. Snow and ice have high albedo, bare ground and trees have low albedo. Melting snow and ice expose low albedo ground so the temperature rises. As the temperature rises more snow and ice melt. This climate change feedback loop is affecting the Colorado River.

The two photos at top span 22 years on the Colorado River at Lake Mead where Hoover Dam holds back the river. The amount of water in the lake is highly controlled by upstream dams but about 20% of that “bathtub ring” can be attributed to the albedo effect.

The river is disappearing into thin air.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Colorado River watershed map from, drought map from

Last Round of Cowbird Babies

Brown-headed cowbird youngster begs from a song sparrow foster parent (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a late July visit to Washington’s Landing (Herr’s Island) I saw two song sparrow families with begging fledglings. Unfortunately the begging youngsters were brown-headed cowbirds, not song sparrows.

Female brown-headed cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of smaller birds.  Each cowbird chick is raised, not by its own mother, but by foster parents of another species. To make matters worse, cowbird parents lurk near the foster nest to make sure their own baby survives. They remove the host’s eggs or kill the foster parents’ young to give their own chick a better chance.

Cowbirds parasitize many species but are especially fond of song sparrows and yellow warblers. Yellow warblers are well aware of cowbird eggs and will “abandon” the nest by building a new nest on top of the old one. Experienced song sparrows get upset but don’t have an immediate solution.

However, song sparrows have a secret weapon — their breeding season is longer. Their first of two to four broods may begin before cowbirds are ready to lay eggs while the last nest starts after cowbirds are done.

In Pennsylvania brown-headed cowbirds stop laying in early July while song sparrows are still going strong. What I saw at Washington’s Landing was this year’s last round of cowbird babies.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Moving Day

The Last Load: Can’t you take a few things more?
Moving Day cartoon, New York City 1869 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Today my husband and I are officially downsizing from a house in Greenfield to a high-rise in Oakland. We’re not moving far, just 1.7 miles as the crow flies.

Moving itself is a pain but I’ll be in a neighborhood I know well, having worked nearby at WQED for 24 years. I’ll miss Greenfield’s nesting robins, cardinals and song sparrows but I’ll gain closeups of my favorite birds: common nighthawks, roosting chimney swifts, the winter crows and peregrine falcons.

Did I say peregrine falcons? Here’s a view from the high-rise roof. When I took this photo I saw (through binoculars) two peregrines perched on the Cathedral of Learning, one on the north face, one on the east.

View from the roof of my new home (photo by Kate St. John)

Today we’ll be really busy moving from one side of Schenley Park to the other.

The movers come at 8:45am. Gotta run!

(photo by Kate St. John. Moving Day cartoon from Wikimedia Commons, click on the caption to see the original)

Are We In a Drought?

United States Drought Monitor (screenshot from

2 August 2020

It’s been so dry in western Pennsylvania this summer that we find ourselves wishing for rain. Yesterday some areas were lucky. It rained 0.61 inches at Pittsburgh’s airport but not throughout the region. Precipitation is still down -2.24 inches since June 1. Are we in a drought?

The US. Drought Monitor map (28 July 2020 above) shows drought conditions and severity across the country. Pale orange in southwestern Pennsylvania indicates areas of Moderate Drought with short-term impacts (“S“). Yellow is Abnormally Dry.

The map above changes quickly if it rains heavily one day. The Drought Severity Index (Long Term Palmer) map, below, charts prolonged abnormal dryness or wetness and matches what gardeners and farmers are dealing with. Southwestern PA has felt like it’s in a drought and, yes, according to the Palmer Index the situation is Severe. (Black on the map is missing data.)

Long Term Palmer Drought Severity Index, 25 July 2020 (map from NOAA)

Our situation in Pennsylvania is mild, though. The real concern is out West where the Drought Monitor is bright red (Extreme Drought) with long term impacts (“L“) and the Palmer Index is dark orange.

West Texas is suffering the double whammy of rampant COVID-19 + extreme drought. Today’s a good day to count our blessings in southwestern Pennsylvania.

(maps from US. Drought Monitor and Drought Severity Index)

Bumblebee and Deer

Last week in Schenley Park I stopped by the Westinghouse Fountain to see swamp milkweed and a photogenic bumblebee.

My cellphone camera was able to capture it in flight!

As I left the fountain a doe crossed W Circuit Road and walked between parked cars to the woods beyond. A fawn soon followed but jumped back in fear before the cars and stopped in the road. Fortunately there was no traffic. It was joined by a second fawn.

The two approached me (I missed that shot) then turned away …

… and were joined by a second doe.

Eventually they all walked between parked cars and caught up with the first doe.

Schenley Park’s numerous deer aren’t afraid of people but they learn to fear cars at a very young age.

p.s. My cellphone can take nice closeups of bumblebees but fails on deer at a distance.

(photos by Kate St. John)