Category Archives: Musings & News

When Pittsburgh’s Air Smells Bad

Smelly air in Pittsburgh is marked on the map, 2 May 2018 (screenshot from Smell PGH)
Pittsburgh’s smelly air is on the map, 2 May 2018 (screenshot from Smell PGH)

For more than a century Pittsburgh was The Smoky City with air so bad we were called hell with the lid off.  After World War II we transformed ourselves with clean air laws enforced by the Allegheny County Health Department.  The smoke is gone and we’re looking good, but Pittsburgh is still one of the top 10 most polluted places in the U.S.

You can’t see our bad air anymore but some days you can smell it.  Yesterday was one of those days.

The Smell PGH map above (May 2) has a colored triangle for every air quality report made on the crowd-sourced app. The darker red the triangle, the worse the air smelled to the person who made the report to the Allegheny County Health Department.  At the bottom right, May 2 has a black square above it (bad air!).  So do May 1 and April 27.  You can see our smelly days.

The reports are easy to make.  I downloaded the app and followed the directions at the Smell PGH website:

  1. Rate the air with a color
  2. Describe it. For instance: industrial, rotten eggs, etc
  3. If you have symptoms from the air, describe them
  4. Click [Smell Report]
Smell PGH reporting panel (screenshot from Smell PGH website)
Smell PGH reporting panel (screenshot from Smell PGH website)

As soon as you press [Smell Report] your colored triangle sends a message to the Allegheny County Health Department and the app shows you the current map.  Don’t forget to enter your name and email address under Settings for more impact.

I used to think I was alone when I noticed bad air days.  The app has changed my outlook. Find out more at the Smell PGH website.


p.s. The weather changed.  Today, May 3, 2018, is much better.

(screenshots from the Smell PGH website)

The Dance Makes A Difference

How can we tell when similar birds are actually different species?

In the jungles of Indonesia the male superb bird of paradise (Lophorina superba) is famous for his courtship dance.  To attract a mate he calls loudly, unfurls his jet black feathers and iridescent green apron, and starts to dance.  If he’s really good at it, the female accepts him.

The bird’s color and dance are so mesmerizing that ornithologists at first dismissed the differences between the eastern and western birds. Now they’ve looked more closely.

This video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology shows how the western bird’s behavior convinced scientists to split the superb bird-of-paradise (Lophorina superba) into two species.

The dance makes a difference.  The bird with the sidestep gait is now called the Vogelkop superb bird-of-paradise (Lophorina niedda).


p.s. Volgelkop is the name of a peninsula in western New Guinea, Indonesia where this bird lives.  On the map the peninsula is shaped like a bird’s head.  Vogel+kop means “Bird head” in Dutch.

(video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Fly With The Birds

This beautiful video from Auvergne, France shows people flying with birds.

Since 1995 Christian Moullec has been working with geese and cranes, pioneering ultralight flights with them and assisting rare birds on migration.

His company, Voler Avec Les Oiseaux, now offers ultralight flights to the public with his own small flocks of birds.

Read more on his website Voler Avec Les Oiseaux (in French).  See videos on his YouTube channel.


(video from Voler Avec Les Oiseaux on YouTube)

p.s. Thanks to Bob Donnan for sharing this video.

Splitting Scrub Jays

Woodhouse's Scrub Jay (from the Crossley ID Guide via Wikimedia Commons)
Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay (from the Crossley ID Guide via Wikimedia Commons)

I got a new Life Bird two years ago and didn’t even know it.

In 2016 the American Ornithological Union split the western scrub jay into two species:  the California scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica) whose West Coast range extends from Washington state to Baja California, and Woodhouse’s scrub jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii) that lives in the interior Southwest from southern Idaho to southern Mexico.

Woodhouse’s is pictured above, California scrub jay below.

California scrub jay (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
California scrub jay (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I finally learned of the split last month but it wasn’t in my eBird records.  Duh!  I hadn’t entered my “western” scrub jay sightings from Nevada.  When I did I got a new Life Bird at Red Rock Canyon.

Splitting is nothing new to scrub jays.  The Aphelocoma genus is particularly likely to change and already has split many times.

Since 1995 the “western” scrub jay split into four species and the western name disappeared into the Florida scrub jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens only in Florida), the Island scrub jay (Aphelocoma insularis only on Santa Cruz Island, California), the California scrub jay and Woodhouse’s.

More splits may be on the way.  Woodhouse’s has a tenuous hold on its sumichrasti subspecies and the Mexican jay (Aphelocoma wollweberi) — shown below — lives in such isolated populations in the sky islands of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico that he may split, too.

Mexican jay in Madera Canyon, Arizona (photo by Alan Vernon via Wikimedia Commons)
Mexican jay at Madera Canyon, Arizona (photo by Alan Vernon via Wikimedia Commons)

Interesting as this is, there’s not room in my brain to keep up with it.  eBird will do it for me if I enter all my sightings.   I’ll have to backload my birding history to keep up with splitting scrub jays.


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

Bread Is Bad For Birds

Duckling awaiting bread (photo by Jourdain Nicolas via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Duckling screaming for bread (photo by Jourdain Nicolas via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

What do you do with a stale loaf of bread?  Do you feed it to the birds?  Uh oh!  Did you know that bread is bad for birds?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not going to poison them. It’s just that for birds bread has no nutritional value.  They’ll fill up on it instead of the food that’s good for them.

Bread is junk food for birds.  So are crackers, chips, french fries, donuts, cereal and popcorn, to name a few.  These foods are especially bad for ducklings because their little bodies have special nutritional needs.

Since the birds won’t control their own junk food intake, you shouldn’t feed them bread.  This isn’t an edict from the Food Police.  It’s just common sense because …

If you’re the only person feeding the birds you can give them good food all the time (see list below) and feed bread sparingly as a junk food treat and it won’t cause trouble.

But at places where lots of people are feeding bread to birds, your bread adds to the problem.  Here’s an visual example.  Do you recognize the spillway at Pymantuning?

Tossing bread to fish, ducks and geese at Pymatuning Spillway area (photo by Brian Byrnes via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Tossing bread to fish, ducks and geese at Pymatuning Spillway area (photo by Brian Byrnes via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

When you visit a park or waterway where other people feed the birds, bring good food for ducks and geese such as:

  • Cracked corn, barley, oats or other grains
  • Birdseed
  • Lettuce and cabbage (cut or torn)
  • Grapes (cut in half to prevent choking) and fruit (cut up)
  • Frozen peas or corn kernels (defrost them)
  • Duck feed pellets (from farm supply stores)
  • Worms, mealworms and night crawlers (fish bait)
  • And by the way, ducks love dry cat/dog food but the park won’t want you to bring it.

Read more about feeding bread to ducks, including the health problems it causes, at The Spruce: Is Feeding Ducks Bread Bad?

Yes, bread is bad for birds.


(photos credits: duckling photo by Jourdain Nicolas via Flickr, Creative Commons license; Pymatuning photo by Brian Byrnes via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Slime Molds Solve The Maze

Last Monday I wrote about the weird world of slime molds.

They’re not plants.  They’re not animals.  They’re not even fungi.  They’re single-celled organisms as much as 10 feet long … and they move!

It gets weirder.

Though they have no brain, slime molds remember where they’ve been and don’t go back there.   This video shows that they can solve a maze!

If you missed last week’s slime mold blog, read amazing facts about them at: Plant Or Animal?


(video from It’s Okay To Be Smart on YouTube)

Plant Or Animal?

Internal surface of the peridium of the plasmodial slime mold, Tubifera dudkae. Magnification 2000x via electronic microscope, colored with computer graphic tools (Featured photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Internal surface of the peridium of slime mold, Tubifera dudkae, magnified 2000 times (a Featured photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This beautiful photograph from Wikimedia Commons is a living organism magnified 2000 times by an electronic microscope, then colored using computer graphics.  Can you guess what it is?

The description says:  “Internal surface of the peridium of the rare myxomycete Tubifera dudkae is covered with folds resembling sea waves. Among them oval shaped reticulate spores occur.”

In other words, the blue waves and brown beads are part of the same organism, a slime mold called Tubifera dudkae.  It is a rare member of the Myxomycete class.  I don’t know if it occurs in North America but I do know it lives in Crimea (thanks to the photos from Wikimedia Commons) and in Tasmania, Australia (thanks to the Myxomycetes website by Sarah Lloyd, an expert in slime molds).

In the photo, the blue waves are the inner surface of the protective layer that holds the spores until they’re ready to release.  This layer is called the peridium.

The brown beads with squiggly lines on them (i.e. reticulated) are the spores.

Here’s what this slime mold looks like from the outside at normal size, sitting in a matchbox.

Fruiting body of the rare myxomycete Tubifera dudkae (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Fruiting body of the rare myxomycete Tubifera dudkae (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And here’s the amazing thing:  Are slime molds plants or animals?

Neither.  They’re not even fungi.  Slime molds are such weird organisms that scientists keep changing their minds about their classification.  Here’s why, with thanks to Ann Jone’s article The Blob:

  • In their reproductive stage, slime molds release spores.
  • When the spores settle down they become one-celled organisms similar to amoebas that move around looking for food. They don’t need to swim in water to do this.
  • At some point in their life cycle, the amoeba-like individuals are drawn to each other and meld into one big cell with millions of nuclei.  Yes, there’s only one cell wall.  This cell is called a plasmodium and it’s slimy.
  • The plasmodium can move! In fact it oozes across the forest looking for food: bacteria, fungi, other slime molds. Some slime molds can stretch 10 feet.
  • Though they have no brain, slime molds remember where they’ve been and don’t go back there.

Watch a slime mold move in this Deep Look video on YouTube.

Read more about slime molds in Ann Jone’s Australian radio article:  The Blob, but smaller: Tasmania’s slime molds.

And learn about Sarah Lloyd, a birder, gardener, and self-taught slime mold expert who lives in the wet eucalypt forest of northern Tasmania.


(Featured photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)
p.s. I’m using the American English spelling of mold, which is also spelled mould.

Earthquakes Ramping Up?

USGS map of 30 Nov 2017 earthquake centered at Bombay Hook, Delaware
USGS map of 30 Nov 2017 earthquake centered at Bombay Hook, Delaware

Two weeks ago I read in The Guardian that big, damaging earthquakes could increase in 2018 because Earth’s rotation has slowed slightly.  Then yesterday afternoon there was an earthquake at Bombay Hook, Delaware, a place where earthquakes are rare.  Are the two related?

In a study published last summer in Geophysical Research Letters, geophysicists Rebecca Bendick and Roger Bilham examined a century of data on major earthquakes (7.0 and above) looking for patterns that might indicate what causes them.  They found that there are indeed periods of increased seismic activity when there are up to 20 major earthquakes per year instead of 8 to 10.

They then looked for Earth attributes that fluctuate on a similar time scale. Nothing fit until they found a match with the periodic slowing of Earth’s rotation.

Earth’s rotation slows very slightly — only a millisecond — about every three decades. It’s so slight that you need an atomic clock to notice it, but Earth’s crust appears to notice as well.  About five years after rotation enters a slow cycle, there are more frequent major earthquakes around the world.

2018 is five years after Earth entered a slow-rotation period so perhaps there will be more intense earthquakes next year.  We’ll have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, what does this finding have to do with the mild 4.1 earthquake at Bombay Hook yesterday?  Maybe nothing.  But I wonder about it because earthquakes are so rare in Delaware.

Read more about The real science behind the unreal predictions of major earthquakes in 2018 and news of the Delaware earthquake in the Washington Post.


(USGS map of 30 Nov 2017 earthquake centered at Bombay Hook, Delaware; click on the image to see the original)

Don’t Press The Snooze Button

Sleep while you work (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Sleep while you work (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Feeling sleepy today?  Did you hit the snooze button on your alarm clock?

I recently learned from a New Yorker article by Maria Konnikova that Snoozers Are In Fact Losers.  When you hit the snooze button that 10-minute interval is just long enough to begin a new sleep cycle but it jolts you awake again at the worst moment — the beginning of the cycle.

The interruptions make your brain think you had a lousy night’s sleep even though the bad part was actually that last 10 minutes — or more if you hit the button several times.  The more you snooze the more you lose.

So what’s the answer?  Don’t use the snooze button.  Get up right away when the alarm goes off.   (Oh no!)

But it’s more complicated than that. Read Konnikova’s December 2013 New Yorker article Snoozers Are In Fact Losers for more information on why …

  • The best way to sleep-&-wake is by using our own internal clock (circadian rhythm) and external light cues (sunrise/sunset).
  • The majority of us suffer from social jetlag.  Our bodies’ preferred wake up time is an hour+ different than our social lives dictate (work, school, etc).
  • It’s bad to wake up in the dark.
  • The brain doesn’t really hit its stride until 2-4 hours after you wake up. Yikes!

We’re the only animals on earth that jolt ourselves awake like this.

Egads, I want a nap!


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