Category Archives: Musings & News

Those Bird Codes

Blackpoll warbler gleaning insects from a boxelder (photo by Chuck Tague)
Blackpoll warbler gleaning insects from a boxelder (photo by Chuck Tague)

25 May 2023

Call me crazy. Or maybe old-fashioned.

Whenever I go birding I make a list — on paper — of the birds I see using the four-letter code for each species. When I get home I type the paper list into eBird. This paper list became this checklist.

Why don’t I just enter the birds directly into the eBird app on my phone? Unfortunately I learned long ago that if I look at my phone in the woods I start to read email, respond to text messages, check the news … and suddenly I’m not birding anymore and I’ve got a whole new set of Things To Do that I didn’t need to trouble with yet. So to keep myself focused I write a paper list.

The codes are easy to remember (see the rules here) except where the rules resolve to the same thing for two or more birds. The overlap codes are the ones I forget:

  • Bay-breasted warbler (should be BBWA, I wrote BAYB)
  • Blackpoll warbler (should be BLPW, I wrote BLKPOLL) and
  • Blackburnian warbler (should be BLBW, I wrote BLKBUR).

I remembered these, though:

  • BAOR = Baltimore oriole
  • CHSP = Chipping sparrow
  • MAWA = Magnolia warbler

My list should have been:

A few of the birds seen or heard in Frick Park on 18 May 2023

Where did the codes come from? If you’ve read this far you might be curious.

(photo by Kate St. John)

80% of the World’s Dogs Are Street Dogs

Village dog in Ecuador (photo by Kirk Johnson via Flickr Creative Commons license)

23 May 2023

An article about tracing the DNA of the famous sled dog Balto included this (paraphrased) fact about dogs:

Geneticist Kathleen Morrill compared Balto’s DNA with more than 600 genomes of wolves, coyotes, and dogs of different breeds including modern sled dog breeds such as Siberian huskies, more physically and genetically isolated sled dogs in Greenland, and “village dogs”— ownerless canines that live in Africa, South America, and Asia and make up 80% of the world’s dogs.

Science Magazine: Hidden details of world’s most famous sled dog revealed in massive genomics project

Being from a place where free-ranging dogs are rare because they’re collected by Animal Control, I was amazed to learn that more than three quarters of the dogs on Earth are “village” or “street” dogs.

I had a taste of this on my trip to Ecuador in February. I saw many, many free-ranging dogs in the cities, villages and the rural countryside.

Street dogs in Ecuador (photo by Zebo Serrano via Flickr Creative Commons license)

The dogs in Quito understood busy streets and the ebb and flow of traffic. They jaywalked when the street was clear to feast on the garbage bags placed on the median for collection. This was obviously a problem in rural places where people built raised platforms for their trash bags.

Not all of the dogs were on the street. I saw them perched on balconies …

Dog on a balcony, Ecuador (photo by Man Bartlett via Flickr Creative Commons license)

… and on roofs.

Dog on the roof, Ecuador (photo by F Deventhal via Flickr Creative Commons license)

At first I thought the street dogs were ownerless strays but then I noticed some had collars.

Veterinarian Nancy Kay visited Ecuador in 2016 and asked questions about the street dogs. She learned that most had owners but the owner-dog relationship is different than we’re used to in the States. Her insights include (paraphrased from her The Street Dogs of Ecuador blog):

  • “Much like ravens and crows, these street dogs always managed to get out of the way [of vehicles] just in the nick of time.
  • For the most part the dogs are owned solely for the purpose of property protection.
  • While the dogs go home at night, most of their daylight hours are spent out on the streets.
  • Most receive a modicum of food from their owners, so must rely on food found on the streets to sustain themselves.”

Learn more about the street dogs of Ecuador in veterinarian Nancy Kay’s blog: Speaking For Spot, The Street Dogs of Ecuador.

p.s. There are no ravens or crows in Ecuador. Perhaps dogs fill that niche.

(None of these photos are mine. Credits and links to the original photos are in the captions)

Seen This Week + Carla Falcon In The News

Mitrewort, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 16 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 May 2023

This was a good week for birds and flowers. But first, no day would be complete without news of the Pitt peregrines.

Carla the Falcon was featured in the Pitt News at “A new peregrine falcon moved into the Cathedral of Learning.” Watch for her on the National Aviary Falconcam at the Cathedral of Learning.

Carla the Falcon at Pitt, 18 May 2023, 11:24a (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Seen This Week: While out birding on Tuesday I noticed blooming flowers and unusual leaves at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve. Mitrewort (Mitella diphylla), at top, is one of my favorites because of its delicate, intricate flowers.

The Greek genus name of Star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum) roughly means “bird’s milk.”

Star-of-Bethlehem, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 16 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

This red leaf gall caught my attention, but the bulk of it is under of the leaf and colored green (second photo). Does anyone know the name of this gall?

Upper side of leaf gall, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 16 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Underside of leaf gall, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 16 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Large-flowered valerian (Valeriana pauciflora) is in bud and in bloom at Raccoon Wildlfower Reserve.

Largeflower valerian, in bud and blooming, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 16 May 2023 (photos by Kate St. John)

Meanwhile jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is blooming in Schenley Park. I could not resist raising his lid.

Jack-in-the-pulpit, normal pose and lid raised, Schenley Park, 19 May 2023 (photos by Kate St. John)

(flower photos by Kate St. John; peregrine photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

A Smell That Reminds Me

John William Waterhouse – The Soul of the Rose, 1903 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

11 May 2023

We’ve all experienced a moment when a smell suddenly brings back memories. A whiff of perfume, a hint of cinnamon and clove, even the smell of furniture polish can send us back in time with vivid detail.

The reason is that our olfactory bulb which processes smells is physically connected to the two places in our brain that process emotion and memory, the amygdala and hippocampus. The link makes a lot of sense in animals that use pheromones for sexual attraction.

This strange entanglement of emotions and scents may actually have a simple evolutionary explanation. The amygdala evolved from an area of the brain that was originally dedicated to detecting chemicals, Herz said. “Emotions tell us about approaching things and avoiding things, and that’s exactly what the sense of smell does too,” she said. “So, they’re both very intimately connected to our survival.”  In fact, the way we use emotions to understand and respond to the world resembles how animals use their sense of smell.

Live Science: Why smells trigger memories

Which brings me to this plant I found blooming at Hays Woods in late April. The scent of cypress spurge (Euphorbia cyparissias) is so unique that it takes me back to a particular place and time and the happiness of seeing beautiful birds at Presque Isle State Park in early May.

Cypress spurge, Hays Woods, Pittsburgh, 24 April 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

On Throw Back Thursday here’s why cypress spurge reminds me of migrating warblers:

p.s. Smells aren’t always happy. Unfortunately our brains can associate a smell with a traumatic experience so that the scent causes PTSD flashbacks.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Kate St. John)

Recognize Your Own Blue Jays

Blue jay (photo by Cris Hamilton)

10 May 2023

As humans we recognize each other by face, body shape and the way a person walks, but it’s rare that we can recognize individual birds. Birds move too fast to examine their faces and in most cases we don’t know what to look for. However if you can “hold them still” in photographs it’s possible to see patterns. This is especially true of your backyard birds that can be photographed over and over.

Blue jays all look the same … but not really. Their facial markings can be unique enough to tell them apart in photos. Lesley The Bird Nerd in Ontario, Canada has photographed her local blue jays for many years and learned to tell who’s who by face. Check out her 6.5 minute video below.

video embedded from Lesley The Bird Nerd

If you have a camera you can do this, too!

(photo by Cris Hamilton, video embedded from Lesley The Bird Nerd)

Parrot-to-Parrot: Video Chat with Friends

African gray parrot looks at computer screen (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

3 May 2023

Wild parrots live in flocks and interact with each other all the time but pet parrots often have lonely isolated lives that lead to psychological problems and self-damaging behaviors. We know that video chats help people connect over long distances. Could parrot-to-parrot video chats enrich the pet birds’ lives? The answer “Yes!” was presented at the ACM SIGCHI conference last month.

A research team from Northeastern University, MIT and the University of Glasgow, who study the potential of technology to enrich the lives of pets and zoo animals, enlisted 18 pet parrots and their caregivers in a three-month-long study to connect the parrots to each other online. Even in such a short time the birds became so engaged that they and their caregivers did not want to stop when the study ended.

During the first two weeks, the parrots were taught to ring a bell and touch a screen image of another parrot so that their caregiver would start a video chat with the selected bird.

African gray parrot plays with a bell (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the second phase, which lasted two months, the birds were given free reign to request and make calls whenever they wanted. The birds quickly developed favorite video-chat friends with whom they talked, sang and preened. “Parrots who made the most calls also received more calls, suggesting that the study helped the birds become more social. Their caretakers also reported improved bonding with their pets.” —

A parrot in the study video-chatting with Rosie (screenshot from Birds of a Feather Video-Flock Together video)

Here’s how the parrots made friends online.

video from NowThisNews on YouTube

The results were quite exciting in some households.

“We saw some really encouraging results from the study. The parrots seemed to grasp that they were truly engaging with other birds onscreen and their behavior often mirrored what we would expect from real-life interactions between these types of birds. We saw birds learn to forage for the first time, and one caregiver reported that their bird flew for the first time after making a call,” said co-author Dr. Jennifer Cunha who is co-founder of Parrot Kindergarten, Inc. that helped to recruit and train the parrot caregivers for the study. Video-calling tech could help lonely parrots flock together

Watch a 9-minute video of the study plan and techniques at ACM SIGCHI: Birds of a Feather Flock Together project.

Read more at Video-calling tech could help lonely parrots flock together.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and screenshot from ACM SIGCHI video, click on the captions to see the originals)

Bird Populations Are Trending North with Curious Exceptions

Blue jay (photo by Steve Gosser)

19 April 2023

Last November eBird enhanced their Status and Trends website with cool interactive maps of overall abundance, weekly abundance, population trends and range for nearly 700 species. The population trends are fascinating for two reasons: northward movement and curious exceptions.

Many eastern species are moving their breeding ranges northward. For some it’s starkly obvious that they’re declining in the Southeastern U.S. and increasing in the northern U.S. and southern Canada. Click HERE to see 12 good examples at Cottonwood Post.

Blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) trends are doubly fascinating. Jays are definitely moving north but with a curious exception in south Florida (why increasing there?). Check out their trends map. Blue is good, red is bad.

Blue jay breeding season population trends 2007-2021 (map from eBird Status and Trends)

Most of Pennsylvania has no change in blue jay abundance but did you see the tiny red dot near Pittsburgh? Where is that decline? Drill into the map on the eBird website using these step-by-step screenshots to guide you.

First, click to Explore all Status and Trends Species on eBird. When you get there, click on Search all species at top right.

screenshot from eBird Explore all Status and Trends

I searched for Blue Jay and got a global map. Click on the [Trends] button. Still too tiny! Click on the + sign at top left to zoom in.

screenshot from eBird Explore all Status and Trends: blue jay

As I zoomed in it became apparent that nothing has changed (i.e. white dots) for blue jays in our region until I found that red dot in Cranberry Township. I hovered my cursor over it and found that blue jays declined there 7.5% from 2007 to 2021. I wonder why…

screenshot from eBird Explore all Status and Trends: blue jay

Meanwhile wood thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina) are the curious exception. Though declining overall their trends map doesn’t show the predictable north-south pattern.

Wood thrush singing (photo by Steve Gosser)

Wood thrushes are declining in the Northeast but increasing in the Southern Appalachians and Alabama. A line of “No Change” runs from approximately Kingston, Ontario to Charlottesville, Virginia. Again, I wonder why…

Wood thrush breeding season population trends 2007-2021 (map from eBird Status and Trends)

Try this for yourself at Explore all Status and Trends Species at eBird.

(photos by Steve Gosser, maps from Cornell University eBird Status and Trends)

If You Want To Save Birds, Count Differently

Black-tailed godwit (photo by Andreas Trepte, via Wikimedia Commons)

18 April 2023

Black-tailed godwits (Limosa limosa) are large shorebirds with a worldwide distribution but are listed as Near Threatened because their population declined 25% in only 15 years, 1990-2005. Two thirds of them breed in Europe. In fact almost half the worldwide population breeds in the Netherlands alone.

The European breeders spend the winter in the Mediterranean and Africa including at the Tagus Estuary at Lisbon, Portugal. During spring migration the Tagus hosts up to 40% of all the black-tailed godwits on Earth. Anything that permanently disturbs the Tagus could hurt the godwits.

Black-tailed godwits feeding near Lisbon, Portugal (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Two decades ago Lisbon, Portugal decided they really need a new airport so they proposed siting it at a former air force base across the Tagus in Montijo.

Proposed airport location at Montijo marked with red X (screenshot from Google maps)

The Montijo Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) counted black-tailed godwits at feeding and resting sites and calculated how many godwits would be disturbed by the noise of air traffic at 65dB (decibels) (orange outline below, 55dB is the yellow outline). The airport’s EIA said only 0.46–5.5% of the godwits would be disturbed.

Spatial extent of two levels of noise predicted to occur over the Tagus estuary … for 30 sites used by individually tracked godwits between 2000 and 2020. (from “Conservation beyond Boundaries: using animal movement networks in Protected Area assessment” by J. Nightingale et al at ZSL Publications)

Though the EIA used the counting techniques that we use in eBird — the number of birds at rest or in the air at specific points — it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Josh Nightingale, a PhD student with the University of East Anglia and Portugal’s University of Aveiro, decided to study the birds’ flight paths and calculate their larger usage footprint in the Tagus Estuary. The more connections they make, the bigger the footprint.

The size of an impact/protection footprint depends on both the connectivity of impacted sites and the configuration of the entire network. Environmental Impact Assessments typically assume (a) a static population, ignoring connectivity: in such cases the footprint only covers the site(s) directly impacted (red circles). … A network with dense connections, such as (c), will typically result in a greater footprint. …Similarly, an impact on a central site (d) results in a larger footprint. (diagram and caption from “Conservation beyond Boundaries: using animal movement networks in Protected Area assessment” by J. Nightingale et al at ZSL Publications)

Fortunately many black-tailed godwits are banded so Nightingale could use 20 years of location data on 693 banded godwits, many seen twice on the same day in the Tagus area. He then drew connections from site to site to create the godwits’ airspace network. Nightingale also used a 55dB noise plot because that level of noise disrupts 50% of the birds.

Connectivity among sites used across the Tagus estuary. Blue lines indicate connections between sites in the godwit network, representing movements by individual marked godwits within a winter season. (diagram from “Conservation beyond Boundaries: using animal movement networks in Protected Area assessment” by J. Nightingale et al at ZSL Publications)

Nightingale concludes:

Frequent disturbance by aircraft is known to have fitness costs for waders by increasing their energy expenditure, and may cause permanent avoidance of habitat if chronic with long-term consequences for site occupancy. The Tagus godwits’ frequent trans-boundary movements mean that 44.6% of the SPA’s godwit population would be exposed to noise disturbance from the proposed airport, and 68.3% of individuals overall. This compares with estimates of 0.46–5.5% in the airport’s EIA.

“Conservation beyond Boundaries: using animal movement networks in Protected Area assessment” by J. Nightingale et al at ZSL Publications

Nightingale’s paper was published this month in ZSL Publications. Fortunately the Montijo site was placed on the back burner last July. Fingers crossed that this paper tips the balance in the godwits’ favor.

Black-tailed godwit flock in Europe (photo by Keith Gallie via Creative Commons license on Flickr)

In cases like these, if you want to save birds you have to count differently.

p.s. Read more about this study in Anthropocene Magazine: How You Count Birds Affects Airport Design and Permitting. Or this summary in Science Direct.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and by Keith Gallie via Creative Commons license on Flickr; Lisbon-Montijo map screenshot from Google maps, additional map and diagrams from“Conservation beyond Boundaries: using animal movement networks in Protected Area assessment” by J. Nightingale et al at ZSL Publications. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Back Into The Wild: A Conservation Victory

Spix’s macaw in captivity in Singapore (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 April 2023

The parrots pictured above are Spix’s macaws (Cyanopsitta spixii) that used to be endemic to the semi-arid Caatinga of eastern Brazil.

Former range of Spix’s macaw (map from Wikimedia Commons)

The past tense is important here. Though never numerous, their population declined precipitously in the late 20th century. By 2000 they were extinct in the wild and existed only in captivity.

Organizations, including the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP e.V.), conducted captive breeding programs to release Spix’s macaw back to their homeland but they also had to spend many years locating, protecting and preparing proper habitat for the birds’ release into the hottest, driest area of the Caatinga.

Caatinga in Bahia, Brazil (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Habitat loss, invasive predators and the disappearance of the birds’ one special tree, the Caraibeira (Tabebuia aurea), had to be reversed.

Caraibeira (Tabebuia aurea) tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

By April 2022 the habitat was ready and ACTP e.V. prepared a small flock of Spix’s macaws for release back into the wild.

(video from Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots on YouTube, 4 April 2022)

The release occurred in June 2022, as shown in this video from ABC News.

(video from ABC News on YouTube, 14 June 2022)

What a gorgeous sight to see them fly free at last!

(photos and video credits are in the captions; click on the links to see the originals)

Un-natural Observations

Dippy wearing a St. Patrick’s Day scarf at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 15 March 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

18 March 2023

Every Saturday I review my photos and pick a few nature observations to highlight but today, weirdly, I only have pictures of man-made objects. The lack of nature observations stumped me for several hours while I struggled to come up a good topic. Finally I gave up. Here’s what I saw.

Dippy, the statue of Diplodocus carnegii in front of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, wears a special scarf for St. Patrick’s Day. He doesn’t actually mind the cold.

My husband and I see this water tower from our apartment but I had not seen it up close so I took a long walk *uphill* to visit what he and I affectionately call “The Doorknob.”

The Doorknob on the Hill at Robert E Williams Memorial Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Were there ghosts at Pitt’s Frick Fine Arts building on 9 March? What else could explain this Ghost Busters car in the parking lot at the maintenance entrance?

Next week I’ll make a big effort to snap photos of plants.