Category Archives: Musings & News

This Year’s Bird Flu: How to Protect Birds

Domestic rooster (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 April 2022

Avian influenza, also called bird flu, is in the news lately because a highly contagious strain has made it to North America from Eurasia. Though not dangerous to humans, this year’s strain is easily caught by some bird species, most notably chickens. Here’s what it is and what we can do to protect birds.

What is this virus? As USDA explains, “Avian influenza is caused by an influenza type A virus which can infect poultry (such as chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, domestic ducks, geese, and guinea fowl) and wild birds (especially waterfowl).” Various strains are always in the wild but the low pathogenicity versions do not cause illness in wild birds or chickens. Every few years, however, a highly pathogenic (HPAI) strain surfaces that is extremely infectious, fatal to chickens, and rapidly spreads in domestic poultry.

This year’s HPAI strain has already devastated many poultry farms.

Which birds have died? USDA is tracking the virus and reports that millions of commercially raised chickens and turkeys have already died this year. As of 7 April 2022 the total death count was more than 24.2 million, the vast majority of which — more than 16 million — were Commercial Layer Chickens. That’s why the price of eggs has gone up. (See USDA commercial and backyard flock statistics here.)

If you are a poultry farmer, have backyard chickens, or have captive birds in a zoo or rehab facility you’ll want to heed USDA’s advice to protect your birds. Accordingly the Pittsburgh Zoo, the National Aviary, and HARP’s wild bird rehab facility in Verona are taking precautions. (See this Post-Gazette article.)

Should we worry about wild birds? Not so much. Wild birds maintain their own social distancing whereas domestic poultry live in crowded conditions on factory farms.

In addition, avian flu is primarily caught by ducks, geese, swans, chickens, wild turkeys, pheasants and quail. Some raptors catch it, though in low numbers. Songbirds are at low risk.

As of 7 April 2022, USDA testing of dead wild birds has found 637 cases in the U.S. 88% were water-related birds, notably mallards and snow geese. 11% were raptors. The highest raptor death toll was among black vultures who roost communally. (See USDA wild bird statistics here.)

Notice the order of magnitude here: 24.2 million poultry deaths versus 637 wild bird deaths.

Interestingly, the species most susceptible to avian influenza are closely related and stand alone in the the phylogenomic supertree below (pale green branch at bottom right) while those least susceptible are least related to ducks and chickens.

Phylogenomic supertree of birds, a clockwise spiral from oldest to newest (image from MDPI, July 2019)

Should you stop feeding wild birds? Audubon Society of Western PA says there is no need to stop feeding wild birds but as always you should clean your feeders every week. Here’s ASWP’s advice from their website.

Bird flu advice from Audubon Society of Western PA, April 2022

And finally, here are two quotes from the New York Times:

Nearly all the nine billion chickens raised and slaughtered in the United States each year can trace their lineage to a handful of breeds that have been manipulated to favor fast growth and plump breasts. The birds are also exceptionally vulnerable to outbreaks of disease. “They all have the same immune system, or lack of an immune system, so once a virus gets inside a barn, it’s going to spread like wildfire,” said Dr. Hansen, the public health veterinarian.

Andrew deCoriolis, the executive director of Farm Forward says: “Instead of asking how factory farms can prevent infections that originate in the environment, which is how they frame it now, we should be asking how they can prevent infections that originate on factory farms,” he said. “If we keep raising more and more animals in these conditions, we should expect the exact outcome we’re getting because that’s how the system is set up.”

New York Times: Avian Flu Spread in the U.S. Worries Poultry Industry, Feb 24, 2022

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, phlyogenomic supertree from MDPI, wild bird advice from ASWP; click on the captions to see the originals)

Not What It Appears To Be

Volcano? (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

25 March 2022

Some things are not what they appear to be.

The photo at top is a rocky peak on the Swiss-Italian border at Splügen Pass but the streaming cloud makes it look like a volcano. Click here to see that it’s simply a mountain (on the horizon at top right) in Google Street View.

Can water tilt sideways? It appears so at this pond in Scotland.

Optical illusion, tilted pond at Drummond Castle Gardens, Perth and Kinross, Scotland (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

How about this herd of horses in the National Geographic Picture of the Year? Click on the image to zoom in. Look closely and you will see zebras.

And finally there is the experiential illusion of a “gravity hill.”

A gravity hill, often referred to as a mystery hill, is a spot in the road where the layout of surrounding land and landmarks creates an optical illusion, making a slight downhill slope appear to be an uphill slope.

Skeptics have put the hills to the test, using magnetic detectors and levels. All indications suggest the hills are just illusions.

WGNTV gravity hills

There are three gravity hills in Pennsylvania. The most famous is in Bedford County.

There is also one in Pittsburgh … but do not visit when there is any traffic! Go on a quiet weekday. Stop. Look. Listen. Be careful.

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

Rocks That Glow in the Dark

Willemite-Calcite fluorescing, specimen from Franklin Mining District, Sussex County, NJ (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

24 March 2022

Because we humans can’t see ultraviolet light we miss the fact that some rocks glow in the dark after exposure to sunlight.

The glowing orange and green rock at top is a composite of willemite (normally brown glowing green) and calcite (normally white glowing orange). On display under normal light it is boring by comparison.

Willemite-Calcite in normal light, specimen from Franklin Mining District, Sussex County, NJ (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Other rocks can glow, too. Did you know that about 30% of diamonds glow under ultraviolet light? 99% of them glow blue but a few glow white, yellow, green, or red as shown below. See the explanation at Diamond Pro.

Fluorescing diamonds from Russia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Fluorescing diamonds from Zaire (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And here’s a rock called blueschist (benitoite-neptunite-joaquinite-natrolite) that is housed at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. In black light it would stop me in my tracks.

Blueschist with fluorescing benitoite-neptunite-joaquinite-natrolite vein, Carnegie Museum of Natural History (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Under normal display it is merely interesting.

Blueschist with benitoite-neptunite-joaquinite-natrolite under normal light, Carnegie Museum of Natural History (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Birds can see ultraviolet light so they see these rocks in all their beauty. Alas we cannot without black light.

On Throw Back Thursday learn more about glowing rocks at:

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

Domesticated Before Chickens?

Domestic geese and goslings with caretaker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

23 March 2022

Goose bones uncovered from a Stone Age village in eastern China indicate that geese may have been domesticated before chickens.

Researchers analyzed the size and chemical makeup of 232 goose bones and used carbon dating to determine they’re 7000 years old. A chemical analysis showed the birds drank nearby water, indicating they were all raised in the same location, and some bones came from baby geese that were too young to fly and must have hatched locally.

Science Magazine: Geese may have been the first domesticated birds

Chickens were domesticated 5,000 years ago so this finding upends the notion that they came first.

Who was domesticated before chickens?

Before agriculture began 10,000 years ago, humans were nomadic in their search for food. The first two animals to be domesticated — dogs and sheep — were easily nomadic as well.

Agriculture prompted humans to form permanent settlements, which led to a spurt of animal domestication to keep the meat supply nearby. Here’s the list from dogs to chickens.

Who was domesticated first?  

Dog15,000+ years ago

Sheep10,000 years ago
Pigeon10,000 years ago to 5,000 years ago
Cat9,500 years ago
Pig8,000 years ago

Cattle8,000 years ago
Goose7,000 years ago
Horse6,000 years ago
Chicken5,000 years ago

Quite a lot happened before chickens.

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

Cutest Bird of the Year

Burrowing owl, Imperial County, CA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 February 2022, San Diego Bird Festival, Big Day across the county

In more than a decade of choosing an annual ABA Bird of the Year, this year’s choice, the burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia), has the most personality. It’s hard to look at one posing near it’s burrow without seeing its defiant and endearing stance.

The owls, of course, take themselves seriously, choosing a mate, finding an appropriate prairie dog, ground squirrel or man-made burrow to nest in, and raising a family.

Burrowing owls at man-made nest near Salton Sea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The owls have had recent success in Imperial County, California where many of these photos were taken. Unfortunately by 2019 their population in nearby San Diego County was down to 75 pairs due to habitat loss and destruction of the ground squirrels whose holes the birds rely on.

In 2020 researchers began to turn that around by releasing eight young owls at Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve. In the winter of 2020-2021, 24 pairs were reintroduced to man-made burrows at Ramona Grasslands Preserve. This winter they plan to reintroduce several more. The hope is that the young birds raised at Ramona will return to their birthplace to nest.

Ramona grasslands, San Diego County (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Read more about burrowing owls in San Diego County at San Diego Burrowing Owls get new homes.

If you want to see great photos every day of the cutest Bird of the Year, follow Wendy @geococcyxcal on Twitter.

They are so photogenic!

UPDATE 21 Feb 2022: Did not see a burrowing owl on this trip.

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

Birding The Border

U.S. border fence enters the sea at Tijuana, as seen in 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

19 February 2022, San Diego Bird Festival, Birding the Border

Today I will see Mexico at a distance, through a fence.

On today’s “Birding the Border” tour we will be at times less than half a mile from the international border. I expect to see the border wall and northern Mexico through binoculars.

When I visited San Diego in 2013 we could walk within sight of this wall that extends into the ocean through Friendship Park of the Californias. What I didn’t know then was that 2013 was a happier time, the start of a brief period of international exchange on one day per year, Children’s Day in April. On that day, separated families with permission could meet briefly in the middle, touch and hug. The event did not occur every year and was permanently canceled by Border Patrol in 2018.

The U.S. side of Friendship Park is now closed all week except for 10a-2p on Saturdays and Sundays and you must drive in or walk 1.8 miles. Anyone can enjoy the land and beach on the Mexican side (left of fence). Americans are not free to do so on the U.S. side.

Border wall at Tijuana (left) and San Diego, US (right), 2007 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
At the Border, 2007: U.S. (left) with U.S. Border Patrol San Diego headquarters. Mexico (right) at Tijuana. (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though the fence is meant to impede human activity it also disrupts the movement of water and mammals. Read more about it and see photos in this vintage article from 2013.

p.s. Note that the photos above are from 2007-2012. UPDATE 21 Feb 2022: Here are two photos from my 2022 trip.

Tijuana, Mexico (on top of the hill) and double border fence (dark rust colored) as seen from Tijuana River Valley Regional Park, 19 Feb 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Tijuana Mexico on hill and the tall buildings in distance. Border wall is underlines in red on right. As seen from Tijuana River Valley Regional Park, 19 Feb 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

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

Astronomical Fireworks: Giant Black Holes May Collide Soon

Two black holes (black) orbit each other within a supermassive black hole (orange gases) (illustration by Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC) embedded from NASA)

7 February 2022

What happens when two massive black holes collide and merge? A team of astronomers says we’re about to find out, in as soon as 100 days in early/mid May.

In the center of a galaxy 1.2 billion light-years from Earth, astronomers say they have seen signs that two giant black holes, with a combined mass of hundreds of millions of Suns, are gearing up for a cataclysmic merger as soon as 100 days from now. The event, if it happens, would be momentous for astronomy, offering a glimpse of a long-predicted, but never witnessed mechanism for black hole growth. It might also unleash an explosion of light across the electromagnetic spectrum, as well as a surge of gravitational waves and ghostly particles called neutrinos that could reveal intimate details of the collision.

Science Magazine: Crash of the Titans

Black holes are locations in the universe with such extremely strong gravity that nothing — not even light — can escape from them. Anything that comes within a black hole’s “event horizon,” its point of no return, is consumed, never to re-emerge.

Inevitably black holes approach each other, simulated by NASA in 2018.

In 2016 Cornell University simulated what happens when they merge.

Scientists theorized that the merger would generate such powerful gravitational waves that nearby material would radiate light. This light was first seen by astronomers at Caltech’s Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) in 2019, illustrated above.

If recent calculations are correct, an even better opportunity is on its way: Two giant black holes are about to crash. It’s the first time we humans know where to look when it happens so astronomers are getting ready to watch.

Hold onto your hats! When giant black holes collide will we hear the crash?

Read more at Science Magazine: Crash of the Titans.

(photo from CalTech/R Hurt (IPAC) embedded from NASA, videos embedded from NASA and Cornell University)

112 Million Year Mistake With a Backhoe

Dinosaur replica at Moab Giants Dinosaur Museum, Moab, UT (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 February 2022

Dinosaurs are big in Utah with at least 20 sites(*) where visitors can see evidence of their presence more than 100 million years ago. One site in the Top 10 of paleontology is the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite, managed by the US Bureau of Land Management, where more than 200 tracks were preserved in an ancient mud flat 112 million years ago. The tracks were made by 10 distinct species, some of them the theropod ancestors of birds.

Dinosaur tracks at Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite, Moab, UT (file photo from US Bureau of Land Management)

This video from BLM shows the site in an upbeat effort to teach people not to damage the dinosaur tracks.

BLM warns visitors not to damage the tracks but they did not think twice about beginning a $250 million dollar project to replace the boardwalk without consulting a paleontologist. At the end of January they made a 112 million year mistake with a backhoe.

A backhoe operator last week reportedly damaged part of one of North America’s largest and most diverse sets of early Cretaceous dinosaur tracks near Moab, Utah. The Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite contains more than 200 tracks left by at least 10 different species about 112 million years ago. Last week, work was underway to replace a boardwalk at the location, which is administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Paleontologists say the agency provided no notice of the work and had no fossil expert on site to monitor it; BLM’s Moab office has lacked a paleontologist on staff since 2018. In a statement this week, BLM did not explain the apparent damage or accept responsibility, saying only “heavy equipment is on location, but it is absolutely not used in the protected area,” and it “is committed to balancing resource protection and public access” to the site. The damage there was verified in person this week by Utah’s state paleontologist.

Science News At A Glance, 3 Feb 2022: Prized dinosaur tracks damaged

It was easy to find out what was damaged. Every single track is documented in photos and measurements. The news hit the papers and reverberated all the way to the U.S. Senate. Without admitting anything BLM halted the project immediately.

For heaven’s sake, Call Before You Dig!

(*) The photo at top was taken at Moab Giants Dinosaur Museum.

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

Seen This Week

Snow and ice melting at Frick Park, 1 Feb 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

5 February 2022

This week began with temperatures in the single digits so it was amazing that we had a record rainfall on Thursday. Not snow, rain.

By Tuesday afternoon, 1 February, the high temperature was 48 degrees and everything was melting at Frick Park, above.

However, Wednesday’s red sunrise on Groundhog Day presaged the upcoming winter storm. “Red sky at morn, sailors forewarn.”

Sunrise in Pittsburgh on Groundhog Day, 2 Feb 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Birds knew bad weather was coming and frantically fueled up. This hungry red-tailed hawk momentarily perched at Carnegie Museum parking lot for a better look at potential prey while the blue jays shouted “Watch out!”

Red-tailed hawk at Carnegie Museum parking lot, 2 Feb 2002 (photo by Kate St. John)

On Thursday the storm moved in. It rained and rained — 1.02 inches — matching the previous record rainfall set in 1939. We were fortunate not to have freezing rain in the city.

By Friday snow covered everything again except this new creek flowing into Westinghouse fountain at Schenley Park.

And in case you missed it …

… the most amazing event happened on Monday 31 January. Click the link for pictures, videos and the reason why the Flying Squirrel Hill Bus is in the air.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Flying Squirrel Hill Bus

Allegheny Crane lifts PAT bus from wreckage of collapsed bridge, 31 Jan 2022, 5:27pm (photo by Kate St. John)

1 February 2022

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a flying bus!

By now I’m sure you’ve heard of the Forbes Avenue Bridge collapse in Pittsburgh before dawn on Friday 28 Jan 2022. The Fern Hollow Bridge fell down in the valley at about 6:39am, taking with it a Port Authority articulated bus and five vehicles. Fortunately no one died and injuries were not life-threatening.

Click on the image for a larger view of this photo.

Aerial view of collapsed bridge, seen from drone, 28 Jan 2022 (photo tweeted by Mayor Gainey)

Frick Park was closed all weekend while NTSB gathered data for the investigation. When the park reopened yesterday afternoon I headed there to gawk, not knowing that I’d be just in time to watch them raise the bus using a 50 ton crane. Wow!

Here are just a few photos from the Squirrel Hill side of the collapse. Read the captions for the explanations.

Here we go! (photo by Kate St. John)
A half-mile walk on Forbes Ave, a place I’d never seen as a pedestrian (photo by Kate St. John)
Almost at the viewing area. Big cranes across the valley, barriers and lots of people (photo by Kate St. John)
Bus plus 4 vehicles (circled) on collapsed Fern Hollow Bridge, 31 Jan 2022, 3:30pm. 5th car had already been removed (photo by Kate St. John)

4:56pm: When I arrived the bus already had been pulled slowly from under the slab and was fully exposed. Three men in the sky bucket supervised and pulled debris off the bus roof. Men on the steep slope (ladders) secured the lift chains.

5:15pm: The bus begins to move out. Signs of “Frick Park” and “Weight Limit 26 tons.”

It’s on the move. Slowly. (photo by Kate St. John)
Almost airborne, 5:19pm (photo by Kate St. John)

As the bus flew very slowly I took a video. You can hear the comments of a boy standing nearby. Click the Full Screen icon on the video [] if you want a bigger view.

The crane operator parked it on the street. Slowly!

Maneuvering to set it down (photo by Kate St. John)
Getting there. He’s gonna park it at the curb. (photo by Kate St. John)

It was a Once in a Lifetime experience — a flying bus in Squirrel Hill!

More videos and stills from TV and media:

(photos and video by Kate St. John)