Category Archives: Musings & News

Why Don’t Birds Get Electrocuted?

European starlings on wires in Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the winter huge flocks of starlings line up on the electric wires.  They even perch on un-insulated wires like those shown above. Why don’t they get electrocuted?

Here’s some helpful background: Electricity is the flow of electrons in a complete circle — called a “circuit” — that moves out from the power source, into our appliances, and all the way back to the power station.  The electrons flow in the path of least resistance.

If a bird steps in and connects the inbound and outbound electron paths it conducts the electricity through its body on a short(er) circuit.  Click here for a video that shows how circuits work.

Birds are safe as long as they don’t short circuit.  The video below explains the electrical reason why birds have to…

  • Touch only one wire. (videomark 0:28 to 0:47)  … and …
  • Not touch a wire and the pole simultaneously. (videomark 0:58 to 1:13)

Birds with long wingspans, like cranes and eagles, can accidentally touch two wires. Smaller birds that mess with the insulators (wire-to-pole connections) can also get electrocuted.

Electric companies prevent bird deaths and worker accidents by placing the wires far apart and increasing the gap between the insulators and the pole (wire-to-pole connections).

No one wants to be a short circuit!

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

Fun With Spirals

Nautilus shell cut in half (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Spirals in nature have a lot in common: Most of them are shaped like this nautilus shell.

Pine cones, flowers and hurricanes follow this same spiral pattern. Did you know they’re described by Fibonacci numbers?

On Throw Back Thursday have fun with spirals in this vintage article: Fibonacci.

Spirals on a pine cone (photo by Kate St. John)
Spirals in a sunflower (photo by Kate St. John)
Satellite image of Hurricane Katia, 31 Aug 2011 (image from NASA, MODIS Rapid Response System on Wikimedia Commons)
Satellite image of Hurricane Katia, 31 Aug 2011 (image from NASA, MODIS Rapid Response System on Wikimedia Commons)

(photo credits: flower and pine cone by Kate St. John, shell and hurricane from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

When White Water Is Bad

Waterfall stained white by abandoned mine drainage, Allegheny County along Yough River Trail (photo by Kate St. John)
Waterfall stained white by abandoned mine drainage, Allegheny County along Yough River Trail (photo by Kate St. John)

The Youghiogheny River is famous for whitewater rafting near Ohiopyle but there’s a tributary downstream where white water is bad.

On the GAP Trail north of Buena Vista — near marker 121 — you can hear a rushing waterfall before you see it.  When you reach its location it’s not a pretty sight. The waterfall stains everything white.

Early this month I looked at the water and its outflow in the Youghiogheny River and discovered that the water is clear and colorless, though it leaves a white residue on everything it touches.

Here are some closer looks.

Closeup of dripping white residue, Allegheny County along Yough River Trail (photo by Kate St. John)
Closeup of dripping white residue in a tributary of the Youghigheny River, Allegheny County (photo by Kate St. John)
Rocks stained white by abandoned mine drainage, at Yough River Trail (photo by Kate St. John)
Rocks stained white by abandoned mine drainage, at Yough River Trail (photo by Kate St. John)

The water is clear because it’s acidic. The residue is from abandoned mine drainage (AMD), a problem that pollutes more than 2,500 miles of Pennsylvania rivers and streams.

Most AMD in western Pennsylvania is orange like this outfall into Chartiers Creek at Wingfield Pines Conservation Area. The rust color comes from dissolved iron.

Orange ferrihydrite water pollution from abandoned mine drainage, Chartiers Creek, April 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)
Ferrihydrite: orange water pollution from abandoned mine drainage, Chartiers Creek, April 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

The white waterfall is caused by dissolved aluminum sulfate from an old coal mine in the hill above the waterfall. 

Aluminum sulfate crystals (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As water from the abandoned mine travels downhill it blends with clean water that raises the pH (i.e. lowers the acidity). At some point the diluted mine water isn’t acidic enough to dissolve aluminum sulfate so the aluminum precipitates out as white residue.

This color is somewhat unusual but there are other white streams in Allegheny County including Milk Run in North Fayette Township along Mahoney Road.  This year the Allegheny County Conservation District is reclaiming Milk Run at the cost of nearly a million dollars.

I can’t imagine the price tag for fixing the White Waterfall.

(photo credits: waterfall by Kate St. John. Aluminum sulfate crystals from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Forbidden Food

Amaranth in bloom (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Amaranth in bloom (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a recent trip past Exit 163 on Interstate 70, I was intrigued by the name Amaranth.    Two towns in Canada, one in Portugal, and one in Fulton County, Pennsylvania have that name.  What does it mean?

“Amaranth” is a flower that never fades, a reddish dye, or — primarily — a grain-like food native to the tropical Americas.  It was a staple of the Central American diet until the Spanish Conquistadors outlawed it when they conquered the Aztecs in 1521.

Back then the grain played a supporting role in religious human sacrifice. Eerily similar to the Eucharist in which Jesus told his disciplines to consume bread and wine symbolizing his body and blood, the Aztecs performed human sacrifices and ate cakes of amaranth mixed with real human blood.

The Spanish abolished all of that.  The penalty for growing amaranth was death. But the plant survived. It became a weed.

One of the weediest in the Amaranthus genus is red-rooted pigweed or green amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus), a 1-6 foot annual whose flowers bloom in bristly spikes in August (photo at top).  This patch is in a German asparagus field.

Amaranth found as a weed in an asparagus field (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Amaranth in a field near Reilingen (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I think pigweed is ugly. However you can eat it, though it probably doesn’t taste as good as the cultivated species

Each tiny flower produces a seed topped by a tiny cap.  Pop the seed and eat the grain or grind it into flour for bread and cereal.

Fruit with seed; amaranth grain (photos from Wikimedia Commons: fruit, grain)
Fruit with seed; amaranth grain (photos from Wikimedia Commons: fruit, grain)

You can eat the leaves, too, but they contain a small amount of oxalic acid so they must be boiled and drained. In India, the leaves are the main ingredient in Kerala-style thoran.

Today many people plant amaranth varieties for their red flowers, the color of amaranth dye.

Red amaranth flowers (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Red amaranth flowers (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Most of us don’t realize it was a forbidden food.

Read more about amaranth as food in the New York Times, Grain of the Future, October 1984 and Public Radio International, Return of an Ancient Grain, July 2013.

p.s. Did you know that quinoa is in the amaranth family?

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

Sinks And Traps

Sink hole in Wales (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Sink hole in a limestone region of Wales (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today’s blog about sinks and traps is not about plumbing …

bathroom sink (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last week Michelle Kienholz noticed that the mockingbird family near her office was under predation pressure again. In June half the family was eaten by a red-tailed hawk. On Friday two flightless young were frightened to the ground.  Michelle put them in a thick bush and hoped for the best.  I thought to myself, “That place is a biological sink for mockingbirds.”

Like a sink hole, shown at top, a biological sink is where a species breeds but the habitat works against them so they always fail to produce enough young to replace themselves. The population sinks at that site.

A sink can be offset by a high quality habitat called a biological source where the population more than replaces itself.  If the sources equal the sinks the population remains stable.  If the sources outweigh the sinks the population grows.  This balancing act is called source-sink dynamics.

Sometimes a sink is so attractive to breeders that they’re drawn to it in large numbers even though they always fail.  These ecological traps cause localized population crashes.

A good example of an ecological trap is the effect that outdoor lights have on mayflies.

Mayflies lay their eggs on water, often at night.  To find water in the dark they look for the polarized light reflection of the moon on water. Unfortunately, our outdoor electric lights are like thousands of moons that reflect off artificial polarizing surfaces — asphalt, cars, windows, etc.  The mayflies mistake these false surfaces for huge bodies of water and land there to lay eggs.  The locations are both sinks and traps.  All the mayfly eggs are wasted.

Mayflies on a car at Catawba Island, Ohio (photo by Rona Proudfoot on Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Mayflies on a car at Catawba Island, Ohio (photo by Rona Proudfoot on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The number of mayflies that fall for these traps can be astonishing.  In June 2015 in Wrightsville, PA on the Susquehanna River, there were so many mayflies on the Route 462 bridge that the surface became slippery with dead mayfly bodies.  They had to close the bridge.

I suspect that if they’d turned off the streetlights while the bridge was closed, the trap would have disappeared, the mayflies would have gone elsewhere, and there would have been less to clean up.

(credits: video from WGAL-TV via YouTube.  photo of car with mayflies by Rona Proudfoot on Flickr Creative Commons license. All other photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

Lawn Chemicals Linked To Dog Cancer

Dogs ready to play (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Dogs ready to play (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This news is so old that I’m amazed I didn’t learn it until last month.

Weed killers save time but researchers have known for decades that their use is linked to cancer in dogs.

Spraying a dandelion with weed killer (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Spraying a dandelion with weed killer (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

2,4-D is a widely used weed killer that’s been around since the 1940s.  It kills broadleaf weeds by causing uncontrolled growth in them, sort of like cancer in weeds.

Why study dog cancer?

Of course we love our dogs and want to know about their illnesses, but there’s an additional reason to study dog cancer.  Canine malignant lymphoma (CML) is so similar to non-Hodgkins lymphoma (NHL) in humans that CML is used as a model for NHL.

Linking lawn chemicals to dog cancer:

  • A 2012 study showed a 70% higher risk of dog cancer (CML) in households that used professionally applied lawn chemicals. Fortunately, they found that flea and tick controls are unrelated to the risk of CML.  Click here for the study.
  • And a 2013 study found an increased risk of bladder cancer in dogs exposed to professionally applied lawn chemicals. Click here for the study.

There’s a growing body of evidence that lawn chemicals — especially 2,4-D — are bad for humans.  I didn’t realize that for 27 years we’ve known they’re bad for dogs.

 

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

p.s. In July 2017 California added glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) to their list of potentially cancerous chemicals.

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)