Category Archives: Doves & Chickens

Count Turkeys in PA

Wild turkeys in Central Pennsylvania, Sept 2009 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

18 July 2022

Once again it’s time to count wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) in Pennsylvania.

Every year the PA Game Commission conducts a statewide Wild Turkey Sighting Survey, July 1 to August 31, to collect data on the size and makeup of our wild turkey population.

They ask for the public’s help to report what we see on the Turkey Brood Survey website. It’s pretty easy to do.

  • The survey runs from July 1 to August 31.
  • Count the turkeys you see and use the Survey page to enter the data
    • Record the location where you see them.
    • Count “big” versus “little” birds — adult vs juvenile.
    • Record the sex for all adults, if possible. (Consult the Wild Turkey Poster.)
    • Don’t double count. See the Survey page for more info on this.
    • Give some basic contact info in case PGC has questions.

Here are two photos to give you practice counting: (1) “Big” and “Little” birds, and (2) Count the flock.

Wild turkeys, mother and juveniles, July 2011 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Wild turkeys in central Pennsylvania (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

How many did you count?

Get outdoors with the Wild Turkey Sighting Survey.

p.s. I fear there will be a low/zero count of turkeys in the city. They used to be plentiful in Frick and Schenley Parks but not anymore.

UPDATE on 2 Aug 2022: Turkeys have declined in Pennsylvania from a high of 280,000 twenty years ago (2001) to 159,000 last year (2021). The PA Game Commission is conducting a study to find out why.

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

From Flocks to Nests

Mourning dove flock on a fence in winter (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

13 April 2022

In spring a change occurs in mourning dove behavior as large flocks we see in winter disperse to nest. Some flocks move north while locals break up into couples and fan out to choose a territory.

It is hard to notice when the change occurs so I graphed my eBird count of mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) in Frick and Schenley Parks, January 2021 through 9 April 2022.

My eBird counts of mourning doves in Frick & Schenley, 1 Jan 2021 through 8 April 2022 (data from Kate St. John)

The change is pretty dramatic. Just 1-5 birds from March through September, then over 40 December through February. The largest flocks were at the Frick Environmental Education Center where they sunned in the trees above the feeders. 100 mourning doves in January!

Mourning dove flock in winter sun (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This year the count dropped below 10 in early March as they paired up. Some pairs maintain their bonds throughout the winter. Others get to know each other in the spring.

Wary pair of mourning doves in California (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On territory the male visits potential nest sites and calls to his mate to inspect them. She gets to choose. (His nest call is 3 notes like this).

According to Birds of the World: To build the nest he brings small twigs, etc. which he delivers to her while standing on her back(!) She arranges them around her while using her body to form a simple bowl. Nest building usually takes 7–10 hours spread over 2–4 days.

The loosely built nest looks messy. Sometimes you can see through it from below.

Mourning dove nest with egg (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And they mate. She lays her first egg within 2 days of nest completion. Subsequent eggs are one or two days apart.

Mourning dove pairs share incubation as they wait for the eggs to hatch in 14 days. Surprisingly neither bird has a brood patch but it works anyway.

The chicks are fed by regurgitation and grow up to resemble their parents. They fledge in 13-15 days, sooner if frightened.

Adult with two almost grown chicks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Juveniles remain in speckled plumage through August. By winter they look like adults.

Juvenile mourning dove in September (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And in October mourning doves gather in flocks again. The process starts over from flocks to nests.

UPDATE 13 April 2022: Today at Frick Park I talked with someone who has a mourning dove nest in their yard while 16 mourning doves hung out near the feeders. Flocking and nesting were simultaneous today.

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

This Year’s Bird Flu: How to Protect Birds

Domestic rooster (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 April 2022

Avian influenza, also called bird flu, is in the news lately because a highly contagious strain has made it to North America from Eurasia. Though not dangerous to humans, this year’s strain is easily caught by some bird species, most notably chickens. Here’s what it is and what we can do to protect birds.

What is this virus? As USDA explains, “Avian influenza is caused by an influenza type A virus which can infect poultry (such as chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, domestic ducks, geese, and guinea fowl) and wild birds (especially waterfowl).” Various strains are always in the wild but the low pathogenicity versions do not cause illness in wild birds or chickens. Every few years, however, a highly pathogenic (HPAI) strain surfaces that is extremely infectious, fatal to chickens, and rapidly spreads in domestic poultry.

This year’s HPAI strain has already devastated many poultry farms.

Which birds have died? USDA is tracking the virus and reports that millions of commercially raised chickens and turkeys have already died this year. As of 7 April 2022 the total death count was more than 24.2 million, the vast majority of which — more than 16 million — were Commercial Layer Chickens. That’s why the price of eggs has gone up. (See USDA commercial and backyard flock statistics here.)

If you are a poultry farmer, have backyard chickens, or have captive birds in a zoo or rehab facility you’ll want to heed USDA’s advice to protect your birds. Accordingly the Pittsburgh Zoo, the National Aviary, and HARP’s wild bird rehab facility in Verona are taking precautions. (See this Post-Gazette article.)

Should we worry about wild birds? Not so much. Wild birds maintain their own social distancing whereas domestic poultry live in crowded conditions on factory farms.

In addition, avian flu is primarily caught by ducks, geese, swans, chickens, wild turkeys, pheasants and quail. Some raptors catch it, though in low numbers. Songbirds are at low risk.

As of 7 April 2022, USDA testing of dead wild birds has found 637 cases in the U.S. 88% were water-related birds, notably mallards and snow geese. 11% were raptors. The highest raptor death toll was among black vultures who roost communally. (See USDA wild bird statistics here.)

Notice the order of magnitude here: 24.2 million poultry deaths versus 637 wild bird deaths.

Interestingly, the species most susceptible to avian influenza are closely related and stand alone in the the phylogenomic supertree below (pale green branch at bottom right = ducks, geese, chickens, pheasants) while those least susceptible are least related to ducks and chickens.

Phylogenomic supertree of birds, a clockwise spiral from oldest to newest (image from MDPI, July 2019)

Should you stop feeding wild birds? Audubon Society of Western PA says there is no need to stop feeding wild birds but as always you should clean your feeders every week. Here’s ASWP’s advice from their website.

Bird flu advice from Audubon Society of Western PA, April 2022

And finally, here are two quotes from the New York Times:

Nearly all the nine billion chickens raised and slaughtered in the United States each year can trace their lineage to a handful of breeds that have been manipulated to favor fast growth and plump breasts. The birds are also exceptionally vulnerable to outbreaks of disease. “They all have the same immune system, or lack of an immune system, so once a virus gets inside a barn, it’s going to spread like wildfire,” said Dr. Hansen, the public health veterinarian.

Andrew deCoriolis, the executive director of Farm Forward says: “Instead of asking how factory farms can prevent infections that originate in the environment, which is how they frame it now, we should be asking how they can prevent infections that originate on factory farms,” he said. “If we keep raising more and more animals in these conditions, we should expect the exact outcome we’re getting because that’s how the system is set up.”

New York Times: Avian Flu Spread in the U.S. Worries Poultry Industry, Feb 24, 2022

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, phlyogenomic supertree from MDPI, wild bird advice from ASWP; click on the captions to see the originals)

Domesticated Before Chickens?

Domestic geese and goslings with caretaker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

23 March 2022

Goose bones uncovered from a Stone Age village in eastern China indicate that geese may have been domesticated before chickens.

Researchers analyzed the size and chemical makeup of 232 goose bones and used carbon dating to determine they’re 7000 years old. A chemical analysis showed the birds drank nearby water, indicating they were all raised in the same location, and some bones came from baby geese that were too young to fly and must have hatched locally.

Science Magazine: Geese may have been the first domesticated birds

Chickens were domesticated 5,000 years ago so this finding upends the notion that they came first.

Who was domesticated before chickens?

Before agriculture began 10,000 years ago, humans were nomadic in their search for food. The first two animals to be domesticated — dogs and sheep — were easily nomadic as well.

Agriculture prompted humans to form permanent settlements, which led to a spurt of animal domestication to keep the meat supply nearby. Here’s the list from dogs to chickens.

Who was domesticated first?

Dog15,000+ years ago

Sheep10,000 years ago
Pigeon10,000 years ago to 5,000 years ago
Cat9,500 years ago
Pig8,000 years ago

Cattle8,000 years ago
Goose7,000 years ago
Horse6,000 years ago
Chicken5,000 years ago

Quite a lot happened before chickens.

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

Tracking Turkeys in PA

Wild turkeys in Pennsylvania (photo by Steve Gosser)

10 February 2022

In January the PA Game Commission kicked off of their largest ever study to count and track wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania’s wild turkey population has varied over the years from near extirpation in the early 1900s to a recent peak in 2001. The birds move around. When this graph began in 1995 there were probably no turkeys within the city limits of Pittsburgh. Now they are fairly common in Pittsburgh’s suburbs and the City’s large parks and greenways.

Wild turkey population variation in Pennsylvania (graph from PGC)

Since wild turkeys are game birds, PGC has always tracked the annual harvest numbers but now, to better understand turkey population dynamics, they will band more birds and track the movements of hens. To do so they will temporarily trap a flock to apply bands and, in WMUs 2D, 3D, 4D and 5C, they will tag 100 hens with transmitters. Click here for a WMU boundary map.

PA WMUs for wild turkey study beginning in 2002 (map from PGC

The PA Game Commission is asking the public to help locate flocks for the project. Report the location of any turkey flock you see between now and 15 March 2022 at this link: Rest assured that the project is not going to hurt or move any turkeys as PGC explains:

  • Birds are being leg-banded for population and research purposes ONLY.
  • GPS transmitters will be put on 100 hens in 4 WMUS (25 in each).
  • All turkeys trapped will be released on site – they will NOT be moved.
  • Location data are only used for research purposes (not law enforcement).

I’m tempted to enroll Frick’s and Schenley’s wild turkeys because I’d love to find out where they come from and where they go but they’re probably not eligible for the study. However we may learn the origin of new recruits when we see banded turkeys in the years ahead.

Where did you come from, turkeys?

Wild turkeys visit the garden outside WQED’s lunchroom, 30 Nov 2011 (photo by Stephen Baum)

Right now only the turkeys know for sure.

For more information see the PGC press release at: Report Turkey Flocks to Help With Research

p.s. The wild turkeys near the air conditioner crossed Fifth Avenue to visit WQED’s tiny garden in November 2011.

(photos by Steve Gosser and Stephen Baum, graph and map from PGC)

Talking Turkey: The Band of Brothers

Three male wild turkeys displaying (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

23 November 2021

When we gather over turkey this week we won’t be thinking of the wild birds that inhabit our parks and neighborhoods. But wild turkeys will be social gathering, too, in flocks that are like extended families.

Members of wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) flocks are often siblings. The males are usually brothers and though only one male, the dominant brother, gets to mate with the ladies the brothers work together to protect their territory. This 2013 article, Band of Brothers, explains the pecking order.

Sometimes the band of brothers causes trouble. For instance, they don’t recognize their own reflection so they attack those turkeys on the shiny car.

Moral of the story: If you part outdoors in turkey country, it’s best to have a dirty car.

p.s. Click here to see two turkeys chase the police in McCandless Twp last January.

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

Who Is Most Numerous?

Girl holding 2-month-old chicken (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

18 February 2021

Which bird species is the most numerous on earth? It depends on what you’re counting. All birds? Or just wild birds?

For all birds, the domestic chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) wins the prize with 25.9 billion as of 2019.

Hen and chicks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Chickens live on every continent except Antarctica as shown on the map below. (Gray indicates absence. Yellow to brown shows increasing density.)

Worldwide distribution of domestic chickens, gray=absent (gray added to map from “Mapping the Global Distribution of Livestock”, PLOS ONE, 2014)

Compare the chicken map to human population density and you’ll see a correlation. There are 7.8 billion humans on earth as of March 2020.

Human population density, 2005 (map from Wikimedia Commons)

As for wild birds, the sparrow-sized red-billed quelea (Quelea quelea) is the most numerous with a population of 1.5 billion as of 2018.

Queleas live only in Africa and thrive best where human grain crops provide abundant food. Queleas correlate to humans too, but not nearly as much as chickens.

Distribution map of red-billed quelea (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Learn how chickens became the Most Numerous Bird On Earth in this 2014 vintage article (at the link).

(photos and maps from Wikimedia Commons and PLOS ONE; click on the captions to see the originals)

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.

(*) Pheasants are birds of open land. They did well when much of Pennsylvania was farmland but now that the state has reverted to forest wild turkeys are doing well and pheasants are not.

The Virus That Kills Birds

  • Ruffed grouse (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

23 November 2020

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 infected grouse never before 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,)