Category Archives: Musings & News

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,)

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)

Who Are My Closest Reptile Relatives?

Common grackle in Toronto, Ontario (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

3 November 2020

Since the 1980s scientists have known that birds are highly specialized dinosaurs that survived the K-T extinction 66 million years ago. Dinosaurs were reptiles. Therefore so are birds. Who among the reptiles is the bird’s closest relative?

The cladogram below shows how mammals and reptiles had a common “stem reptile” ancestor. However, during the Carboniferous period mammals diverged from the rest of reptiles and became very different (left branch).

(from a diagram at, Creative Commons license)

During the Permian, Turtles diverged from the rest of the reptiles. Later the Archosaurs did, too (far right branch). Some of the Archosaurs resembled crocodiles.

Rutiodon validus (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Crocodiles didn’t change much in the past 80 million years.

Crocodile (image from Wikimedia Commons)

But dinosaurs changed a lot and the Theropod dinosaurs became birds!

Microraptor gui (artistic restoration from Wikimedia Commons)

These unlikely relatives reunite at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park where wild birds nest in the trees above the crocodiles.

Rookery at St. Augustine Alligator Farm (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Saltwater crocodile at St. Augustine Alligator Farm (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, diagram derived from Creative Commons licensed cladogram; click on the captions to see the originals)

How To Find Dinosaur Teeth

Closeup of Tyrannosaurus rex , a theropod from the Cretaceous of South Dakota, Field Museum, Chicago (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

How do paleontologists find fossils? Better yet, how do they find small bits such as tiny dinosaur teeth?

Saurornitholestes and his teeth (screenshot from video)

In Wyoming they get help from ants.

In the video below Australian paleontologist Mikael Siversson (“Birds are dinosaurs”) describes a trip he and a colleague made to Wyoming dinosaur country in the late 1990s. The video starts with a picture of the Badlands as he begins to tell the story. Watch for four minutes — or longer if you want to learn about dinosaur teeth. It involves bathtubs.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, screenshot from video; click on the captions to see the originals)

p.s. The toothy mouth pictured at top is the reconstructed skull of a Tyrannosaurus rex, a theropod ancestor of birds. Did birds have teeth? You bet!

Meet The Ancestors

  • Song sparrow with ancestor (photo by Frank Izaguirre)

We’ve known for a while that birds are descended from dinosaurs. In fact, paleontologist Mikael Siversson says, “Not only are birds descended from dinosaurs, but in fact birds are dinosaurs. They are highly specialized surviving dinosaurs.”

Of course modern birds have never met their long lost relatives so last Sunday Frank Izaguirre tweeted “A gift I recently gave myself was to put some dinos in the yard to facilitate this meeting of the ancestors.” They met below the bird feeder (photos above).

Bird-dinosaurs were lucky to survive the K-T extinction event that ended the Age of the Dinosaurs. Mammals survived, too, and in the absence of large dinosaur predators they took over.

Later Frank tweeted

(photos by Frank Izaguirre)

Without Columbus

12 October 2020, Columbus Day in Pennsylvania

This statue in Schenley Park was celebrated when it was erected by the Italian-American Sons of Columbus in 1958 but has been a source of controversy in recent decades. Last week the decision came down to send it to a private location. The only remaining questions are where and when.

Columbus meant nothing in the British colonies until writers began celebrating him (in female form “Columbia”) when we broke with Britain in the 1760s. We needed a non-British origin story so after we won independence the legend expanded, was added to textbooks, and was used to gain Italian immigrant support (especially in NYC) beginning in the late 1800s. The legend started to crumble in the 1970s when we began discussing the real history of the man and his era in the Americas.

His legend was created to fill a gap and now the legend is fading. What if Columbus never crossed the Atlantic? Here’s how things might have been different.

The coronavirus pandemic gives us an inkling of what it was like when Columbus and the Spanish explorers brought pandemic to this part of the world. It changed the western hemisphere.

Before Columbus, the human population in the Americas was larger than that of Europe. The landscape, animals and birds were balanced by the pressure of so many people living in North, Central and South America.  When European explorers accidentally left behind pigs that carried human disease, native Americans encountered the free-range pigs, had no immunity and spread the plagues through human contact.

The Western Hemisphere suddenly lost 95% of its human population in only 150 years.  Remove the keystone species and you get some pretty weird results.  European settlers didn’t see the transformation so they thought what they found was normal including the endless forest, huge bison herds and billions of passenger pigeons.

Illustration of female passenger pigeon (from Wikimedia Commons)

Without Columbus the Americas would have been a very different place but the pressure of human population growth would have prompted someone to come here anyway, just not him.

Find out more about the New World before Columbus in this book –> 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (Knopf, 2005)

p.s. The history of the Christopher Columbus legend is described here in the Washington Post.

Today the Schenley Park Columbus statue is covered in white plastic, probably to protect it from the vandalism that targets it on Columbus Day since 1997.

Christopher Columbus statues is shrouded, October 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

More Than a Billion

Male red-billed queleas, Kruger National Park, SA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The most numerous wild bird on earth, estimated at 1.5 billion individuals, is the red-billed quelea (Quelea quelea) of sub-Saharan Africa. This very social weaver finch migrates and nests in flocks that number in millions.

Flock of red-billed quelea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When the flocks get going they resemble swarms of locusts.

Red-billed queleas eat mostly grain and seeds. As they feed on the ground the flock leapfrogs from back to front like a rolling cloud.

In Africa they are so well known as flocks that it’s hard to think of them as individuals. Two males are pictured above. Here’s a female.

Female red-billed quelea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately their numbers and flocking behavior get them into trouble. When their natural food sources run dry they change their focus to cultivated fields. A flock of two million can eat 20 tons of grain in a day, thus …

This species is a major pest of cereal crops, and huge efforts have been expended by national and international agencies on lethal control and attempts to reduce population numbers by use of explosives, petrol bombs and aerial spraying of [organophosphate] avicides; in South Africa up to 21 million reported killed in a single month, with annual kill estimates of up to 180 million.

Control operations, however, probably do no more than replace naturally occurring mortality, and there is a significant adverse impact on other species, which are poisoned directly or die after eating dead queleas.

Birds of the World, Red-billed quelea

A much more successful control measure than killing them, though very labor intensive, is to actively make noise in the fields and scare the birds away.

After more than 70 years of control measures that kill hundreds of millions of birds per year, the red-billed quelea population has grown.

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

p.s. A video at this link shows all aspects of the red-billed queleas lives but is grisly at the end.

Spiders On Caffeine

European garden spider on web (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 October 2020

Since I began blogging 13 years ago my morning life has settled into a predictable pattern: I get up very early (4:00 am), make coffee, settle at my computer and start writing. Coffee is essential.

What’s essential to me doesn’t work well for spiders. On caffeine they make wonky webs.

Effect of caffeine on spider web construction (images from Wikimedia Commons)

Why did a scientist bother to find this out? His friend wanted to sleep late.

Read the details in this vintage article, On Caffeine, written years ago when I got up later myself.

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

Cats Can Copy Human Behavior

Illustration demonstrating action and cat’s performance after “Do it!” Action A: (a) the owner raises her right hand and touches the box with it; (b) cat’s action scored as matching the demonstration of action A

4 October 2020

And now for something completely different — not a wild animal but a wild result.

Last week Science Magazine reported the first ever scientific proof that a cat can imitate human behavior. A Japanese cat named Ebisu demonstrated it in a “Do As I Do” experiment.

“Do As I Do” is a training technique in which the owner gets the pet’s attention, performs an action, and then says “Do It.” The animal learns that Do It means copy me and repeats the action.

Ebisu’s owner, Higaki, said the cat learned easily because of her high food motivation.

Higaki showed that Ebisu could copy familiar actions, like opening a plastic drawer and biting a rubber string. Then she asked the cat to imitate two new behaviors [for which she had not been trained]. While standing before Ebisu, who sat on a countertop next to a cardboard box, Higaki raised her right hand and touched the box. At other times, she bent down and rubbed her face against the box.

— Science Magazine Kitty see, kitty do: cat imitates human in first scientific demonstration of behavior

As you can see in the video, Ebisu watches her owner place her hand on the box and tap it. Her owner stands straight, then says “Do It.” Ebisu places her paw on the box and taps it, then immediately asks for a treat. Of course she gets one. Good Kitty!

In the photos below, her owner rubs her face on the box. So does Ebisu. Lead author Fugazza says this is remarkable because only dolphins, parrots, apes, and killer whales have so far been shown to imitate people

Illustration of demonstrating action and cat’s performance after “Do it!” command. Action B: (c) the owner bends down to rub her face on the box; (d) Cat’s action scored as matching the demonstration of action B

Skeptics say that Ebisu would have rubbed the box anyway. Really? Having lived with cats for most of my life I can tell you that getting a cat to do something on command is the tricky part.

Sadly Ebisu can no longer show off her talents. She got kidney disease this year and died in June. I know how hard that is. I’m sure Higaki misses her.

Read more about Ebisu at Kitty see, kitty do: cat imitates human in first scientific demonstration of behavior in Science Magazine.

(photos from Did we find a copycat? Do as I Do in a domestic cat (Felis catus) at Springer Link)

p.s. For a video of a dog trained to copy human behavior see the video in this article: Your Dog is a Copycat. The dog is even multi-lingual, trained in Italian but “Do it” in English. 😉

Rare Birds

Connecticut warbler, Harrison Hills County Park, 24 Sept 2020 (photo by Dave Brooke)

We’ve all heard of rare birds but what makes a bird rare?

By definition a bird is rare if it is very hard to find due to location, time of year, or low population. If it is far out of its normal range or seen at a time of year when it shouldn’t be there the bird is marked rare by eBird. To make it more challenging, some low population species are very secretive and live in dense habitat, thus are rarely seen(*).

Here are some recent examples.

Rare In Many Ways: Connecticut Warbler at Harrison Hills County Park, Allegheny County, PA on 24-26 Sept 2020

Connecticut warbler, Harrison Hills County Park, 24 Sept 2020 (photo by Dave Brooke)

The Connecticut Warbler (Oporornis agilis) is rare because …

  • It is not abundant anywhere and its population is declining.
  • It is very hard to find and to see — even when you know exactly where it is — because Connecticut warblers are extremely secretive, foraging quietly in dense underbrush and rarely popping into view.
  • In most of North America it is seen only on migration so it’s present for only a day or three. (range map here)

Finding a Connecticut warbler requires luck and patience and more luck. Dave Brooke had all of those + his camera when this bird made an appearance at Harrison Hills County Park near Natrona Heights, PA on 24 September 2020. I went to see the bird myself on 26 September and managed to catch a glimpse of its tail as it foraged in a thick stand of mugwort. I wouldn’t have seen it at all if five other birders hadn’t pointed out the twitching plants when I arrived.

Rare by Location: Bay-breasted warbler, Santa Clara County, California, 27 September 2020

Bay-breasted warbler in Santa Clara County, CA, 27 Sept 2020 (photo by Robin Agarwal via Flickr Creative Commons license)

This fall we’ve had a very good run of bay-breasted warblers (Setophaga castanea) in the Pittsburgh area. I’ve seen so many that eBird tells me my report count is too high. However, a bay-breasted warbler in California is rare indeed. Robin Agarwal got a photo of it in Santa Clara County on 27 September 2020.

Rare for Time of Year: Barn Swallow, North Park, Allegheny County, PA, 26 September 2020.

Barn swallow in flight in Milwaukee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Barn swallows (Hirundo rustica erythrogaster) are common in summer in southwestern Pennsylvania but they leave in August for Central and South America and are definitely gone in late September. However, on 26 September Mark Vass saw one flying over Marshall Lake at North Park, Allegheny County. eBird announced his find but there was no photo. (This photo is from Wikimedia Commons.)

VERY VERY RARE INDEED: The rarest of rare birds was found at Powdermill Banding Station on 24 September 2020 — a half-male-half-female bilateral gynandromorph rose-breasted grosbeak. The bird is male on his/her right side and female on the left. This birth defect is so rare that one of the banders said it was like seeing a unicorn. Click here and here for Powdermill photos and here for other half-male-half-female birds. Rare indeed!

p.s. Read more here about how a bird can be both male and female = bilateral gynandromoprh.

(photo credits: Connecticut warbler by Dave Brooke, bay-breasted warbler by Robin Agarwal, barm swallow from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)