Category Archives: Musings & News

From Grief To Action

Red-winged blackbird, Point Pelee, Ontario, 2010 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday I shared a report on the stunning loss of North American birds. 29% have disappeared since 1970 with heavy losses in many of my favorite species including blackbirds, warblers and wood thrushes. We grieve as Silent Spring happens before our eyes.

Though the report was depressing there were two bright spots that provide hope and can guide us from grief to action. The report includes this happy news: Ducks increased 56% and raptors 200% thanks to our intervention.

Ring-necked ducks take off, March 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ring-necked ducks, March 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Ducks were in such steep decline in the early 1900s that hunters banded together to reverse the trend. The main cause of decline was habitat loss — the disappearance of wetlands — so they worked to pass wetland protection laws in the U.S. and Canada and migratory duck protection in Mexico. People gave of their time and money to build wetland habitat for waterfowl, especially through Ducks Unlimited. Their effort paid off.

Female peregrine in flight, May 2016 (photo by Peter Bell)

Meanwhile, by 1970 peregrine falcons were extinct east of the Mississippi and bald eagle populations had crashed. The cause was a pesticide — DDT — that was outlawed in the U.S. in 1972. With Endangered Species Act protection and the work of recovery programs, peregrine falcons and bald eagles made a stunning come back.

The recent decline in North American birds has its root in the same problems we solved for ducks and raptors: habitat loss and pesticides. We solved it before, can do it again. We can turn our grief into action.

Our actions can be small scale or large — from our own backyards, to local schools and parks, to the national level.

On a personal scale, Cornell Lab of Ornithology suggests seven simple things. I’ll add two questions to think about: Do you treat your lawn? Do you ‘fog’ your backyard to keep mosquitoes away? Reducing insects means birds and nestlings starve.

On a local and national scale we can work to restore habitat and reduce pesticides through conservation organizations and our local Audubon and birding clubs (see list at end).

And finally, we can work to change attitudes toward nature and we can vote. Wetland protection and pesticide laws were key to saving ducks and raptors. Every level of government — from school board to nation — makes decisions that affect birds.

After an interval of grief, we’ll have a lot to do. We can do it. We just have to try.

Red-winged blackbird flock, Kansas, 2006 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(red-winged blackbird photos from Wikimedia Commons; 7 Simple Things from Cornell Lab of Ornithology; click on the captions to see the originals. Ring-necked ducks by Steve Gosser, peregrine falcon by Peter Bell)

p.s. Pittsburghers, here are some land and bird conservation organizations, mostly local:

29% of Our Birds Have Vanished

In the past several years my friends and I have noticed it. We expect to see a lot of birds at our feeders and on migration but something has gone wrong. We rarely see so many, sometimes almost none. There are fewer birds than there used to be.

The truth is worse than we thought. A report published in Science on 19 September 2019, shows that the bird population of North America has declined by 2.9 billion birds since 1970. Half of that decline occurred in the last 10 years(*). Indeed, we have seen Silent Spring happening before our eyes.

The declines are uneven across species and regions. Grassland species have been hit the hardest with more than half gone. Boreal forests have lost a third. 617 million wood warblers are gone.

The research team, led by Kenneth V. Rosenberg of Cornell University, analyzed many data sets including Breeding Bird Surveys, Christmas Bird Counts and US Fish and Wildlife Surveys. The most poignant proof came from a non-human counter — radar data of nocturnal spring migration. Across the U.S. from 2007 to 2017 weather radar saw a 14% reduction in our bird population.

The heaviest losses occurred in the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways (blue and green on map).

Migration flyways map from Melissa Mayntz at The Spruce
Migration flyways map, Melissa Mayntz at The Spruce

Pittsburgh’s radar station was in the top 20% of locations that lost birds.

Pittsburgh’s National Weather Service radar in Moon Twp PA (photo from

Here’s just a sample of the decline in species since 1970:

  • 50% of red-winged blackbirds have vanished,
  • 92% of blackpoll warblers have disappeared since 1966,
  • 70% of chimney swifts,
  • 60% of wood thrushes,
  • 25% of blue jays (Have You Seen Any Blue Jays Lately?),
  • 81% of house sparrows and 49% of starlings. Though these two species are invasive their demise is an indication of how serious this is.

The reasons for decline are across the board including increased use of pesticides, habitat loss, collisions with windows, cats and many more. For instance, neonicotinoid pesticides, deadly to bees, are weakening songbirds so they delay migration or fail to complete it. Logging and fires in the boreal forest and in Central and South America have eliminated warbler habitat on both breeding and wintering grounds.

Birders have noticed the decline because it recently accelerated. Half the birds disappeared in the first 40 years. The other half vanished in the last decade.

Right now some of us are grieving, an ecological grief for the loss of birds and the prospect of a bleak future.

But there are bright spots in the report that give us hope and a way forward. I’ll write about them tomorrow.

(Credits: slideshow images courtesy Cornell University Digital Press Kit, flyways map by Melissa Mayntz at The Spruce, photo of Pittsburgh NWS radar station from

Source material and additional information:

An Infectious Enthusiasm For Birds

Tony Bledsoe lecturing at Univ of Pittsburgh, approx 2006 (screenshot from video)

This week I was saddened to learn that Dr. Anthony Bledsoe passed away on Saturday September 14, 2019. His infectious enthusiasm for birds and behind the scenes advocacy will be sorely missed.

Tony Bledsoe was an instructor and lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh for 31 years and such an inspiring teacher that his students rated him “One of the best professors I’ve ever had.” In 2006 he won the Tina and David Bellet Teaching Excellence Award as Outstanding Undergraduate Teacher in Arts and Sciences at the University, voted by the students themselves.

Tony was a friend and a behind-the-scenes advocate for birds at the University of Pittsburgh. I first met him in 2001 when he offered to help me establish a peregrine nestbox at the Cathedral of Learning. Tony read my PABIRDS report about peregrines in courtship flight and knew there was no suitable location for them to nest. I wanted to install a nestbox but had no idea how to approach the University. Tony knew who to call. He worked behind the scenes to find people to champion the peregrines within the Administration. By February 2002, with Tony’s help, the nestbox was in place. Dorothy and Erie raised their first chicks that spring.

Dorothy with first nestling at the nestbox Tony Bledsoe helped establish at the Cathedral of Learning, Mothers’ Day 2002

Tony provided scientific background on peregrine behavior within the University and beyond. In March 2007, when Erie killed an intruder peregrine at the nestbox, he was interviewed by John Tierney of the New York Times for an article about the peregrine fight: Peregrine Smackdown: Stay Away From My Dorothy!

Bright specks in the beam, migrating birds swirl in Pitt’s Victory Lights, 7 Oct 2018, 11:05pm (photo by Kate St. John)

Last fall, as a member of the Board of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania (ASWP), he worked behind the scenes to save migratory birds at the University of Pittsburgh. When he read my blog about the deadly attraction of Pitt’s Victory Lights, he called ASWP’s Executive Director Jim Bonner to urge this as a Board concern. Jim made connections so quickly that by that evening the University of Pittsburgh and ASWP were working together on the solution. (See Hooray! Good News For Birds!) This rapid response would not have been possible without Tony’s phone call.

Tony’s enthusiasm for science and for birds inspired those who knew him. The video below, probably from 2006, shows how committed he was to education and how he inspired students in every class.

Tony’s infectious enthusiasm will be sorely missed.

For more information, see his obituary here.


An object at rest tends to stay at rest (photo of Emmalina asleep by Kate St. John)

Today’s post was inspired by my cat Emmalina (Emmy) and a Twitter video.

My cat demonstrates the everyday meaning of “inertia” all the time. She has a tendency to rest and do nothing.

In fact the real meaning of inertia is the resistance of any physical object to any change in its motion, including a change in direction. It applies to both motion and rest.

Inertia in motion explains how our bodies move when we ride in a car.

  • When the car is going in a straight line at constant speed on a smooth road it feels like we aren’t moving. (No change in motion; no resistance to change)
  • Going around a curve, our bodies lean toward the outside of the curve. (Inertia resists change in direction)
  • When the car stops our bodies keep on moving ahead. (Inertia resists change in speed)

This Twitter video shows an object at rest — a dinosaur toy — staying at rest in mid air after the trampoline surface goes down. Then gravity takes over. Pretty cool.

Or this: The water in the balloon remains in its original shape for a moment after the balloon bursts.

Inertia: the water briefly stays in place (animation from Wikimedia Commons)

In everyday conversation “inertia” should probably mean resistance to change. My cat is good at that, too.

(photo of Emmalina by Kate St. John, dinosaur video from Twitter, balloon animation from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the links to see the originals)

96 Million Shade Balls

Early this week YouTube said to me, “Here’s a video you might like.” Maybe you will too.

Crazy as it looks, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is happy with the results since they covered their reservoir with 96 million black balls.

LADWP calls them “shade balls” but they used to be called “bird balls.” Yet there’s not a bird in sight. This 12-minute video from Veritasium explains it.

I’ve never seen shade balls in Pittsburgh but I can think of several reasons why:

  • We have much less sun. (fewer sun-induced chemical reactions)
  • Our climate is humid. (less evaporation)
  • Bromates are not the big problem here. (Alas, in Pittsburgh our problem is lead.)

But perhaps I’m missing something. Have you seen shade balls in Pittsburgh? Let me know.

(video from Veritasium on YouTube)

Why So Many Landslides?

After a rainy period or spring thaw in Pittsburgh we inevitably see devastating landslides on the news. Why does Pittsburgh have so many landslides and why are they associated with rain or moisture?

The problem is a combination of a particular bedrock with our steep hillsides. Where both are present the location is landslide prone, as shown on the City of Pittsburgh map below. (Click here to see the City’s interactive landslide-prone map and zoom in for details. Click here for the Allegheny County interactive landslide map.)

Landslide prone areas (screenshot from Pittsburgh GIS Data Download Page)

The house in the video above was inside a landslide zone on Semicir Street overlooking Riverview Park. Add water and … the house collapsed!

The bedrock at fault is Pittsburgh redbed, a claystone that disintegrates into smaller and smaller pieces if exposed to pressure when it’s wet. Redbed is usually under pressure because it’s underneath solid rock and overlying soil. Add water to a steep slope and you have a landslide.

This sandstone boulder on the Bridle Trail in Schenley Park was part of the escarpment above it until the redbed layer beneath it gave way.

An old landslide in Schenley Park on the Bridle Trail, July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s a future landslide on the Lower Panther Hollow Trail. This sandstone boulder, high above my head, will fall some day because the slow drip of water over the boulder has disintegrated the underlying redbed. Notice the reddish crumbled stones.

Sandstone boulder is undercut, a landslide waiting to happen at Lower Panther Hollow Trail, Schenley Park, July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

I had read that Pittsburgh redbed disintegrates when wet but I wanted to see for myself so I gathered some redbed rocks and ran an experiment.

Thousands of years ago these small crumbles were a much bigger solid rock but water had already acted on them. Will the crumbles disintegrate in the presence of water and pressure? I kept some rocks dry and soaked others for a day. Here’s my experiment.

Add water and pressure to Pittsburgh redbed claystone and … Watch out below!

p.s. For a really spectacular landslide, check out what happened to Route 30 in East Pittsburgh in April 2018.

(photos and redbed experiment by Kate St. John, house collapse video embedded from WTAE Pittsburgh on YouTube, map from Pittsburgh GIS Data)

Reflect Light, Stay Cool

Nankeen kestrel in Australia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

How do birds stay cool in hot climates, especially when there’s no shade?

A 2018 Australian study in the journal Nature found that some birds can reflect the hottest part of sunlight, the near infrared (NIR) spectrum.

Near infrared is long-wavelength light beyond the red end of the visible spectrum. Though we can’t see this wavelength we can feel its heat. In fact more than half the sunlight that reaches Earth is in the infrared spectrum, as shown in the graph below.

Most of the sunlight that reaches the Earth’s surface is in the infrared range (simplified image from Wikimedia Commons)

Australia is a good place to study cooling techniques in birds because 70% of the continent is hot, dry and very sunny. The Australian study examined museum specimens of 90 species, classifying them by habitat and testing them for their NIR reflectant properties. Two species stood out.

The nankeen kestrel (Falco cenchroides), named for his yellow color (above), reflects near infrared light from the crown of his head. The azure kingfisher (Ceyx azurea) stays cool by reflecting NIR from his chest. Their feathers can reflect NIR because they have rounder barbs and denser barbules.

Azure kingfisher, Queensland, Australia (featured picture on Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a graph from the study that compares them with two other species.

Graph of four species (image from Reflectivity article in Nature Communications)

The nankeen kestrel and azure kingfisher are at the top of the NIR reflective scale but low reflectors of visible and UV light. The reverse is true of the blueish bird, a male superb fairywren (Malurus cyaneus). He’s great at reflecting UV and visible light, probably because he lives where it’s moist and shady. The great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) doesn’t reflect much light at all.

Interestingly, near infrared reflectivity is more prevalent in small birds because they benefit more for their size. You can’t tell it from the photo but the azure kingfisher is only as big as a sparrow.

Too hot? Reflect near infrared light to stay cool.

(image credits: nankeen kestrel, sunlight graph and azure kingfisher from Wikimedia Commons. Graph from “Reflection of near-infrared light confers thermal protection in birds” at, Creative Commons license. Click on the captions to see the originals)

That Would Be My Perfect Flight

Falconry birds aren’t pets, they’re partners.

In this short film, Shawn Hayes describes his relationship with birds and how he became a falconer. His co-star in the film is an immature prairie falcon (Falco mexicanus) that he’s working with to orchestrate the perfect flight.

About the bird’s future he says:

The day that I release my bird back out to the wild I know that bird is going to survive. I know that bird is going to go out and probably get a mate and produce other birds in the wild. And I was part of that.

Shawn Hayes, “How One City Man Found His Calling in the Wild”

“Falconry is not a sport, it’s not an art — it’s a way of life.”

(video by Joshua Izenberg on the National Geographic YouTube channel)