Category Archives: Bird Behavior

The Traveling Nest

The Rivers of Steel Explorer (photo from Ryan O’Rourke)

3 August 2022

What do you do when your nest and babies sail away without you? A house finch couple on Pittsburgh’s North Shore have learned to wait for the boat to come home.

Male and female house finches, Nov 2010 (photo by Steve Gosser)

This spring a pair of house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) were very quick to build a nest atop a loud speaker on the aft deck of the Rivers of Steel Explorer, docked behind the Carnegie Science Center. By the time the crew caught up with them the female had finished the nest and laid eggs, so the nest had to remain undisturbed until it was empty.

House finch nest on top of loud speaker on Rivers of Steel Explorer vessel, 29 July 2022 (photo by Ryan O’Rourke)

When would it be empty? Not yet. In August? In September?

House finches are masters at back-to-back nesting, raising three to six broods per year. As the young approach fledging the male takes charge of them while the female starts the next round of egg laying. On the Explorer the female doesn’t pause between one brood and the next.

When I met the Explorer finch family on 26 July they had already raised several broods and were caring for young approximately two days old. While our tour waited on deck for the boat to depart the father fed three tiny nestlings. They are growing fast! Here they are three days later on 29 July.

Close up of house finch nest, 29 July 2022 (photo by Ryan O’Rourke)

Our tour pulled away from the dock and I forgot about the house finches for 90 minutes while we traveled Pittsburgh’s three rivers. Mother and father house finch were absent but they had not forgotten. Waiting on shore they were so attuned to the habits of the Explorer that when the vessel maneuvered to dock they raced across the channel to the aft deck. “The kids are home!”

The Traveling Nest is one of many birding highlights on Rivers of Steel Explorer tours. Captain Ryan O’Rourke explained, “In addition to hosting a bird-watching cruise with the National Aviary, part of our educational program for students includes a lesson in birding and how birds can be indicators of the health of our rivers.”

And then there are rare birds that the Explorer is first to see. On 26 April 2022 O’Rourke reported 13 American avocets on the Monongahela River at Station Square. I chased these birds and missed them. Wish I’d been on the boat!

Next month you can join Rivers of Steel and the National Aviary for Riverboat Birding on the Explorer, 3 September 2022. Sign up below or click here.

(photos by Ryan O’Rourke and Steve Gosser)

Mesmerizing Dance

Sunbittern, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

29 July 2022

The sunbittern (Eurypyga helias) looks rather boring when its wings are closed but when it flies you see a gorgeous pattern on its wings. Why is that?

Subittern in flight, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And then it dances …

If you want to see a sunbittern in the wild, here’s where they live.

Range map of sunbittern from Wikimedia Commons

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

Eating Salad?

American goldfinch eating thistle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 July 2022

Is there a bright yellow bird with black wings in your vegetable garden poking among the salad greens? Or perhaps a drab female or juvenile bird (shown below)?

Female American goldfinch feeding juvenile (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) nest in July so they are very busy bringing food to their young.

Their favorite choice is thistle seed, above, but they will occasionally taste reddish salad greens like Swiss chard, below.

Swiss chard (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Don’t worry for your garden. Goldfinches only take a nibble.

Find out more about the “Salad Birds” in this vintage article:

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

Summer Snowflake

Queen Anne’s Lace, Schenley Park, 22 July 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

23 July 2022

The flowers on Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), or wild carrot, are so lacy and regular that they resemble snowflakes when viewed from above, especially in black-and-white.

Queen Anne’s Lace, black-and-white (photo by Kate St. John)

Look closely and you’ll see that the tiny flowers inside the umbel have 5 regular parts. Step back to see the pattern of 5’s replicating to the edge.

Queen Anne’s lace umbel is 5-sided (photo by Kate St. John)

Unlike winter’s 6-sided snowflakes (below) these summer “snowflakes” have only five.

Snowflake (photo by Alexey Kljatov via Wikimedia Commons)

p.s. See Vicki Dinsmore’s comment below about wild parsnip which is not the same thing!

(photos by Kate St. John and from Alexey Kljatov via Wikimedia Commons)

Swallow or Swift?

Chimney swifts (from the Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)

20 July 2022

Whoosh! Fast moving birds circle, swoop, rise and fall as they eat flying insects. Swallows and swifts move so fast that it’s hard to identify them in flight. With one swift and six swallow species in our area(*) the first step is to decide: “Is that a Swallow or a Swift?

This stop-action photo by Patrick bx (@bronxfxdc) makes it easy to see the differences described by below.

Is That a Swallow or a Swift? Identification clues from

Even from a distance these two swallow plates from Crossley ID show many features that are different from the chimney swifts at top.

Tree swallows and northern rough-winged swallows (from Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)

And finally, chimney swifts make a unique chittering sound in flight.

Swallow or swift? You’ll get plenty of practice in the coming weeks as the birds gather for fall migration.

(*) p.s. Here are the swallow and swift species that occur in our area — southwestern Pennsylvania.

(photos from Patrick bx (@bronxfxdc) embedded tweet & the Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Screeching All Over Again

  • Ecco: OH NO! SHE'S BACK!

19 July 2022

For ten days, July 8 to 18, the airspace around the Cathedral of Learning was quiet. Literally quiet. No screeching. This year’s young peregrines had finally left home to become independent. What a relief after Silver Girl screeched all day for a handout on 6 July! Ecco and Morela relaxed.

It was too much to hope. When it rained all day on Sunday 17 July with more rain due on Monday the 18th, Silver Girl came home to beg from Ecco rather than hunt on her own in the rain.

Oh no! She’s back! Ecco retreated to the nestbox but departed as Silver Girl arrived. Screeching! Screeching! She hopped up to the snapshot camera and continued screech.

Here’s what she sounded like in case you’ve forgotten the noise.

Silver Girl screeches for a handout, 18 July 2022

My husband heard her screeching again at St. Paul’s Cathedral steeple at 7pm.

The weather will be sunny for the next five days without any all-day rain for the foreseeable future. Silver Girl will leave again but will she become truly independent? It remains to be seen.

(photos from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Baby Birds Try To Figure It Out

Baby burrowing owls (photo by Katie McVey USFWS via Wikimedia Commons)

15 July 2022

After weeks of being fed by their parents, baby birds’ first big challenge is to feed themselves. What is edible? How to chomp it? How to catch it?

When open my beak the food goes in. Doesn’t it?

“Is this how to do it?” Juvenile red-tailed hawks practice pouncing at Tompkins Square Park, New York City in June 2022.

“What is this?” say two baby burrowing owls. Babies, it’s food!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, embedded tweets and video)

Baby Birds Stepping Out

Piping plover chick at Queens, NY (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

10 July 2022

Before they can fly, baby birds make their first moves on foot. Watch three babies stepping out.

A piping plover chick (Charadrius melodus) at Rockaway, NY:

A flightless guillemot chick (Cepphus grylle), accompanied by his father, jumps into the sea at an island off the UK coast:

A baby emu gets excited.

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

Screeching All Day

Silver Girl complains at the Cathedral of Learning nestbox, 6 July 2022 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

7 July 2022

Parenthood can be trying especially when grown children who were briefly independent return home and complain that you’re not feeding them enough. Pitt peregrines Morela and Ecco are going through this with their two female youngsters, Yellow Girl and Silver Girl.

Last weekend Yellow Girl demanded a handout. Then a brief respite of silence ended this week with intensive screeching. I heard it yesterday morning as I walked past Phipps Conservatory and searched the sky for a young peregrine chasing an adult. Nothing.

What I heard was Silver Girl at the nest, a third of a mile away, screeching at the top of her lungs as shown in the video below. At the start you can hear Ecco chupping and whistling while Silver Girl screams. She calmed down for a moment but it didn’t last. She screeched off and on all day.

Weaning these youngsters from parental care is a very noisy activity.

(video from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Yellow Girl Demands A Handout

Yellow Girl looking for a handout, 2 July 2022 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

UPDATE 7 July 2022: Both young peregrines have been screeching. Silver Girl screamed all day on 6 July.

3 July 2022

By late June two of this year’s juvenile Pitt peregrines remained in Oakland. Sometimes they waited for their father Ecco to bring food. Sometimes they left campus to go hunting. Eventually I saw only the adult peregrines at the Cathedral of Learning.

Then on 30 June something changed. Michelle Kienholz saw and heard a noisy juvenile begging loudly. Yesterday morning my husband heard lots of peregrine begging from St. Paul’s Cathedral steeple.

Cathedral of Learning in the distance beyond St. Paul’s Cathedral steeples (photo by Kate St. John)

By 4:30pm the falconcam showed that Yellow Girl had come home for a handout and Ecco was having none of it.

Here’s an edited sequence of events. I have spared you 8 minutes of screeching.

Ecco is letting Yellow Girl know that it’s time to fend for herself.

(peregrine photo and video from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh; St. Paul’s steeple and Cathedral of Learning photo by Kate St. John)