Category Archives: Musings & News

House Sparrows Are In Trouble

House sparrows at the Walmart, 29 Jan 2021 (photo by Tim Vechter at Westmoreland Bird and Nature Club on Facebook)

1 April 2021

Yes, today is April Fool’s Day but it’s no joke that house sparrows are in trouble. Though still considered pests in North America their population has declined dramatically, even in their native range. Seven years ago their disappearance was a mystery. Has anything changed?

Native to Eurasia and northern Africa, humans introduced house sparrows (Passer domesticus) to continents and islands worldwide in the 1800s, making them the most widely distributed wild bird on Earth. (Green is native range, yellow is introduced in the map below.)

House sparrow range map: green=native, yellow=introduced (map from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows were successful worldwide — too successful — but as recently as 30 years ago they began a steady decline. They are down 84% now in North America and 60% in Europe. In the UK they are red-listed as a species of high conservation concern.

There have been many studies but no one cause for decline. The reasons include:

The one thing we do know since 2014 is that there is no lack of nest sites.

In North America house sparrows are not just in trouble, they are trouble because of their aggression toward native species while nesting.

We’ll be happy to see them go but their mysterious decline should make us think. If a bird as hardy and human-oriented as the house sparrow is declining, it bodes ill for us too.

For more information read :

(photo by Tim Vechter at Westmoreland Bird and Nature Club on Facebook)

To Change Or Not To Change

(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

13 March 2021

We’re about to lose an hour’s sleep, annoy our pets, and be crabby for a couple of days. Tonight we turn the clocks forward to Daylight Saving Time. It turns out this change is optional.

AnalogClockAnimation1 2hands 12h in 1min

In 2019 the European Parliament voted to allow each EU nation to decide on its own if it wants to adhere to Daylight Saving Time (DST) starting in 2021. If a nation decides to keep Standard Time, it would change its clocks in October/November and never change again. If it decides to stay with DST it could change this month and stay in permanent DST. Interestingly if the UK (no longer in EU) and the Republic of Ireland (EU member) have different ideas about DST they could create two time zones where there has been only one.

In the U.S., each state is allowed not to participate in Daylight Saving Time (DST) but it requires the state legislature and Congressional approval to use DST year-round. Arizona, Hawaii and six U.S. island territories do not use DST while 13 U.S. states have begun the slow legislative process of making Daylight Saving Time permanent.

So changing our clocks tonight is optional. A country can decide not to do it. A state can decide not to do it. We as individuals have the freedom not to change our clocks, even if we live in a U.S. state that uses Daylight Saving Time.

You don’t want to change your clocks? Don’t change them.

Tell me how it goes.

(*) p.s. I’m pretty much a rule follower so I will change my clocks. Also, I like DST.

If you chose not to change your clocks you will have to fuss with your Internet-connected devices that change automatically. You can force your cellphone to use the time you want by changing Settings > System (or General) > Date & Time > then un-checkmark “Use network-provided time” and “Use network-provided time zone.” Set whatever time you want. Good luck.

(photo and clock GIF from Wikimedia Commons)

Birds Decline, Small Mammals Thrive in a Hotter World

Cactus mouse (photo by J.N. Stuart, Creative Commons license via iNaturalist)

8 March 2021

What is the future of life on Earth as the climate warms? Which species will thrive and which decline? A study published last month in Science indicates that “in a warming world, it’s better to be a small mammal than a bird.”

In the early 1900’s Joseph Grinnell made extremely detailed records of flora and fauna in California’s Mojave Desert for the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. A century later the average temperature in the Mojave is now 2oC (3.6oF) higher. Using Grinnell’s records a team led by Eric Riddell resurveyed Grinnell’s locations to find out how birds and mammals fare in hotter, drier conditions.

If you like birds, you won’t like the news.

[In the Mojave Desert] Over the past century, occupancy of small mammals remained stable while birds severely declined.

On average, every spot surveyed had lost more than 40% of its desert bird species, such as American kestrels or mountain quail. At most sites, even the remaining species were scarcer.

Science Magazine: In a warming world it’s better to be a small mammal than a bird.
American kestrel, 2013 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Small mammals get around the heat problem by staying underground during the day. Birds don’t have this choice and they have an additional disadvantage — their bodies use more energy to stay cool.

It looks like there will be fewer birds in a hotter world. Read more in Science Magazine: In a warming world it’s better to be a small mammal than a bird.

p.s. There is a bird who stays underground during the day and eats small mammals in the Mojave Desert: the burrowing owl.

(cactus mouse photo by J. N. Stuart via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC-ND), American kestrel photo by Cris Hamilton)

Clean Your Bird Feeders!

American goldfinch and pine siskin at bird feeder (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

7 March 2021

This winter’s influx of northern finches has brought new enjoyment to backyard birders and death to some of the feeder birds. Pine siskins (Spinus pinus) especially are succumbing to salmonellosis, a bacterial illness spread at bird feeders.

“The first indication of the disease for bird watchers to look for is often a seemingly tame bird on or near a feeder. The birds become very lethargic, fluff out their feathers, and are easy to approach. This kind of behavior is generally uncommon to birds,” Mansfield said. “Unfortunately, at this point there is very little people can do to treat them. The best course it to leave the birds alone.”

WDFW: Help protect wild birds from deadly salmonellosis

Reports of dead and dying feeder-birds in Washington state have prompted the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to urge people not to feed the birds until at least April 1.

It’s happening here too though not enough for an advisory, but that’s beside the point. Protect your backyard birds. Clean your feeders! What you can’t see is hurting them.

Is this clean? (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Spruce published these handy cleaning tips, summarized below:

  • Clean your bird equipment every 2 weeks, more often when a lot of birds are visiting. Crowding spreads disease.
  • Empty the feeder; throw away dirty seed! (I’ve learned this lesson, too. I once had mold in the nyger feeder.)
  • Mix the cleaning solution: 1 part bleach to 9 parts hot water
  • Take feeder apart and soak it to loosen dirt.
  • Then clean thoroughly
  • Dry thoroughly
  • Reassemble and refill. Ta dah!

The Spruce suggests that when you’re in the market for new bird feeders, think about how you will clean them. Sometimes wood can be hard to clean.

Northern cardinal at wooden bird feeder (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Read more at All About Birds and The Spruce.

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

A Chunk of Comet Killed the Dinosaurs

Incoming! The event that killed the dinosaurs (screenshot from Harvard University video)

24 February 2021

Ever since the early 1980s when Luis and Walter Alvarez discovered that the Chicxulub Crater in the Yucatan and the extinction of the dinosaurs were caused by the same event, we’ve talked about the “asteroid” that killed the dinosaurs. Recently two Harvard researchers took a new look at the composition of Chicxulub rocks and the physics of comet behavior and revised that conclusion. It wasn’t an asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. It was a chunk of comet!

Asteroids live in the main belt of the inner solar system located between Mars and Jupiter. Comets are from the Oort cloud of interstellar space.

Logarithmic scale distance of the Oort Cloud from the rest of the Solar System. Voyager 1 location in 2013 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The video below explains how a piece of comet could break off and cause the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction … and how soon one could hit us again. By the way, Jupiter is involved.

Yow! Oh no!

Illustration of an unusual association of hadrosaur and therizinosaur from tracks found in Denali National Park, Alaska (illustration by Karen Carr via Wikimedia Commons)

A chunk of comet killed the big dinosaurs. Fortunately we still have the little ones with us … Birds!

(screenshot at top from Harvard University video, remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Who Is Most Numerous?

Girl holding 2-month-old chicken (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

18 February 2021

Which bird species is the most numerous on earth? It depends on what you’re counting. All birds? Or just wild birds?

For all birds, the domestic chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) wins the prize with 25.9 billion as of 2019.

Hen and chicks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Chickens live on every continent except Antarctica as shown on the map below. (Gray indicates absence. Yellow to brown shows increasing density.)

Worldwide distribution of domestic chickens, gray=absent (gray added to map from “Mapping the Global Distribution of Livestock”, PLOS ONE, 2014)

Compare the chicken map to human population density and you’ll see a correlation. There are 7.8 billion humans on earth as of March 2020.

Human population density, 2005 (map from Wikimedia Commons)

As for wild birds, the sparrow-sized red-billed quelea (Quelea quelea) is the most numerous with a population of 1.5 billion as of 2018.

Queleas live only in Africa and thrive best where human grain crops provide abundant food. Queleas correlate to humans too, but not nearly as much as chickens.

Distribution map of red-billed quelea (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Learn how chickens became the Most Numerous Bird On Earth in this 2014 vintage article (at the link).

(photos and maps from Wikimedia Commons and PLOS ONE; click on the captions to see the originals)

Introduced, But Not By Shakespeare

Starling (photo by Pedro Szekely via Flickr Creative Commons license)

3 February 2021

It’s time to set the record straight. European starlings were indeed introduced to North America in 1890 and 1891 by the American Acclimatization Society and the man responsible for it was indeed Eugene Scheiffelin, but his plan had nothing to do with Shakespeare.

The apocryphal story is everywhere, including my own blog post in Feb 2008, Nothing But Mortimer, below, which is INCORRECT in two respects.

European starlings didn’t live in North America until 1890-1891 when a Shakespeare fan, Eugene Scheiffelin of the American Acclimatization Society, released 100 of them in New York’s Central Park because he wanted every bird mentioned in Shakespeare to live in the United States. Starlings make only one appearance in Shakespeare’s works — in Henry IV, Part 1 — and that was because they are mimics.

Outside My Window, Nothing But Mortimer, Feb 2008

The Shakespeare story is quite intriguing but if you look into it, as did John MacNeill Miller, Associate Professor of English at Allegheny College, and his student Lauren Fugate, some of the details don’t hold up. Here are two of them:

INCORRECT: “Starlings didn’t live in North American until 1890-1891.”

Actually starlings were released in the U.S. multiple times in the 1870s and 1880s. Wild flocks were reported during that time.

INCORRECT: “Starlings are here because Eugene Scheiffelin wanted every bird mentioned in Shakespeare to live in the U.S.”

As I said, the Shakespeare connection makes it a nice story but the historical record doesn’t bear up. John Miller explains why.

As far as Lauren and I could tell, the Shakespeare connection is first mentioned by the popular mid-century science & nature writer Edwin Way Teale in his collection of essays, Days Without Time (1948). Schieffelin and the (NYC-based) American Acclimatization Society definitely released the birds in 1890 & 1891, although those were probably among the last releases, rather than the first. (The American Acclimatization Society had themselves released starlings at least once before, back in the 1870s.) So we’re talking about a space of nearly 60 years after the last AAS release that the Shakespeare link is first asserted…and more than 40 years after Schieffelin’s death in 1906.

— email from John Miller, 8 Jan 2021

Learn more about starlings in John Miller’s lecture at Phipps’ Virtual Biophilia in January 2021: Pittsburgh Meeting | A Story That Shaped the Sky:

Sorry, Starlings, to burst your literary bubble.

(photo of a European starling (mislabeled as a crow) by Pedro Szekely via Flickr Creative Commons license)

p.s. Phipps Conservatory’s Biophilia offers monthly lectures at this link.

The Force of Light

Crepuscular rays at Bjoafjorden, Norway (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

21 January 2021

One of the puzzling laws of nature is that the basic units of light — photons — are both waves and particles and though they have no mass they exert pressure on the objects they hit. On Earth this pressure is so tiny that it goes unnoticed but in outer space it is the main force other than gravity and has a large cumulative effect over time. It is called radiation pressure or the force of light.

Spacecraft engineers design for radiation pressure because it affects how a spacecraft moves. For instance, when light is reflected off an object in outer space it picks up momentum from the force of light and moves away from it. This diagram shows the change in momentum where light (dark blue color) is reflected.

Just over seven years ago during the Move An Asteroid Competition MIT suggested using radiation pressure to protect Earth from dangerous asteroids. How? Paint the asteroids white to reflect more light. Check out the plan in this vintage article: Paintballs To The Rescue.

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


Sunrise over Joshua Tree, California, 2011 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 January 2021

Little did we know a year ago today when the first known case of COVID-19 was reported in the U.S. that we were heading for a year of recurring fear, illness, death, isolation, political unrest and economic hardship. By now almost everyone knows someone who tested positive. Too many know someone who died.

Yesterday the U.S. COVID-19 death toll reached 400,000. To put this in perspective, that’s the entire population of Tulsa, Oklahoma or Tampa, Florida or 1/3 of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

For a year we have been grieving alone or in small groups. Yesterday for the first time we mourned as a nation for the lives lost to the coronavirus. A nurse from Livonia, Michigan who cares for COVID patients sang Amazing Grace as a tribute to those we’ve lost.

We’ve been going through a very dark time but we can work together for a brighter future.

Today let us take solace in the beauty of nature and begin to hope.

(video by Terje Sorgjerd at El Teide Mountain, Spain, April 2011; music by Ludovico Einaudi)

Another Name for a Run in a Hollow

Nine Mile Run joins the Monongahela River at Duck Hollow, 27 Oct 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

18 January 2021

At the end of yesterday’s blog post about Panther Hollow and Four Mile Run I explained a local naming convention that’s a mystery to people from other parts of the country. The noun “run” means the act of running or a route taken on a regular basis yet in Pittsburgh it also means “creek.”

A stream is called a “Run” in Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, eastern Ohio and western Maryland. Derek Watkins’ map of Generic Terms for Streams in the Contiguous U.S., generated from GNIS data, shows the places where people use different words for Creek including: Branch, fork, run, brook, kill, stream, bayou, swamp, slough, wash, cañada, arroyo, rio. (Click here to see his map.)

— from The Rise and Fall of Panther Hollow Lake by Kate St. John

Using the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), Pfly generated a map of just two words — “Run” in red and “Branch” in blue. South of here, Branch and Run coexist then Branch takes over.

Branch vs. Run (map by Pfly on Flickr via Creative Commons licensing)

There are other anomalies as well. Hollow, as in Panther Hollow, is our name for a narrow valley. The term is used throughout Appalachia and in places where Appalachians settled later such as the Ozarks, Utah, Texas, and parts of Oregon and Wisconsin(*). Everywhere else out West a narrow valley is a Gulch. Since the West is dry we think gulches are dry, but they don’t have to be.

Here’s Pfly’s map of Hollow in orange versus Gulch in blue.

Hollow vs Gulch (map by Pfly on Flickr via Creative Commons licensing)

So a Run in a Hollow could be called a Branch in a Gulch.

Nine Mile Branch in Duck Gulch is pictured at top.

It just doesn’t sound right.

(photo by Kate St. John, maps by Pfly on Flickr, Creative Commons licensing)

p.s. (*) The Hollow vs Gulch map is interesting from a Western migration perspective on places where Appalachians settled later. For instance,

  • Utah was settled by Mormons from Upstate New York.
  • Parts of Texas were settled by Appalachians looking for more land. For instance, my great-grandparents emigrated from Appalachian Tennessee to northeastern Texas near the town of Paris.
  • Southwestern Wisconsin uses both Branch and Hollow, terms from the southern Appalachians. Derek Watkins speculates that this patch may have come from Appalachian in-migration “during a regional lead mining boom in the early 19th century.”