Category Archives: Musings & News

Do They See What We See?

GG looks up from a meal (photo by Chad+Chris Saldin)

30 November 2021

We humans assume that what we see is what everyone else sees, including other species. But this isn’t so.

Peregrines see much finer details at a greater distance that we do. The details don’t blur for them in a 200 mph dive. (Click the link to learn more.)

Tellus in a stoop (photo by Chad+Chris Saldin)

Cats cannot see red-green nor distant details, but they see much better in the dark. Who needs distance vision while looking for a nearby mouse at night? Click here to see photos of our vision versus cats’. Notice the normal vs. red-green-color-blind examples below.

Domestic cat (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Normal vision vs deuteranopia (red-green color blind) (images from Wikimedia Commons)

White-tailed deer see regular blaze orange as gray but if the orange has fluorescence it stands out for them. Their vision is best in the blue range so that they see well in twilight.

White-tailed deer at Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)
Non-fluorescent blaze orange looks gray to deer ( sign from PA Game Commission, Blaze Orange Vest on Amazon)

Birds see ultraviolet light though we cannot. Here’s how we know this and a hint at what birds look like in ultraviolet light.

Do other species see what we see?

No. Birds see more.

(peregrine photos by Chad+Chris Saladin, deer photo by Kate St. John, remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Unusual Crowds of Birds

Crows in winter (photo by Oliver via Flickr Creative Commons license)

24 November 2021

People form crowds, cattle are in herds, dogs in a pack, whales in a pod and birds in flocks. But we have special group names for some species. For instance, a flock of crows is a murder, a flock of starlings is a murmuration.

Here are five unusual crowd names for birds, as listed at The Spruce.

A college of cardinals: Northern cardinals, which are red, were named for Roman Catholic cardinals whose vestments are red. The Church’s body of cardinals is called the College of Cardinals. Fall and winter are the only times when you’ll see a college of northern cardinals. They don’t flock in the breeding season.

A ‘college’ of cardinals in Oklahoma, Feb 2015 (photo from justabirdthing via Flickr Creative Commons license)

A flamboyance of flamingos: Of course.

A flamboyance of American flamingos (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A charm of goldfinches: This group name originated in England where the native European goldfinch has a (charming) red face.

A charm of goldfinches on teasel (photo by Natural England via Flickr Creative Commons license)

A palette of painted buntings: Flocks of painted buntings are hard to find, but even a lone male is a palette of color.

Male painted bunting in Freeport, TX(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A committee of vultures: This committee is distracted as a latecomer joins them.

A committee of turkey vultures in Pennsylvania (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Vulture committees have a long and colorful history which continues to this day. I am reminded of Lewis Nordan’s 2003 book, Wolf Whistle, set in 1955 Mississippi where vultures are “buzzards,” described and quoted in this Amazon review:

Ancient buzzards named after Southern politicians take up daily residence on a telephone wire above Arrow Catcher’s main street. “The buzzards were named Vardaman and Bilbo and Hugh White and J.P. Coleman and Ross Barnett and other names of past and future governors and senators of the sovereign state of Mississippi.”

The committee pictured above is in Pennsylvania.

p.s. See more flock names at The Spruce.

(photos via Flickr and Wikimedia Creative Commons licenses. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Zebra Update

These are NOT the Maryland zebras! (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

16 November 2021, Pittsburgh, PA

It’s hard to keep track of wild zebras in Maryland from 200 miles away, but I couldn’t help wondering if the two escapees are still roaming Prince George’s County. As of this morning, Google cannot find any news that the zebras have been captured — yes, it would have been big news — so it’s safe to assume they are still at large.

Even if you live near them it’s hard to keep track of the zebras. A lot has happened since they escaped in August.

For now two zebras are still in the “wild” in Maryland. Meanwhile I leave you with this historical note from @MarylandZebras:

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

COVID Deer

Deer approaches human in Markham ON, May 2020 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 November 2021

In case you missed it.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic scientists wondered if other species could catch the virus and transmit it back to humans. Fortunately, so far no COVID-infected animals have transmitted the virus back to us. However white-tailed deer easily catch COVID from humans and spread it deer-to-deer.

NPR reports that a study of deer in Iowa last year found that deer are very susceptible to COVID. During most of the year 30% of tested deer had COVID, but during hunting season with more human contact 80% of deer showed signs of infection. Deer also spread it easily among themselves so that the prevalence of COVID in deer is now 50 times that of humans.

Deer are lucky. COVID doesn’t make them sick and it doesn’t kill them. But the fact that the virus that causes COVID, SARS-COV-2, circulates so widely among a common North American mammal may come back to bite us.

If deer become a reservoir for SARS-COV-2 and eventually transmit it back to us or to our livestock or companion animals (dogs and cats), then it has a good chance of mutating into something more unpleasant. At the very least it will never disappear.

The fact that deer catch COVID should not surprise us. SARS-COV-2 jumped from bats to humans and then spread easily from human-to-human. Here are some other viruses that cross species.

As deer have shown, virus jumping is more common than we thought.

Read more or listen to the podcast at NPR: How SARS-CoV-2 in American deer could alter the course of the global pandemic.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Hunting Allowed 3 Sundays This Month

White-tailed deer at sunrise (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 November 2021

If you spend time outdoors in Pennsylvania you know that November is prime hunting season, especially for deer. What you may not know is that Sunday hunting, banned since 1682, has been allowed since 2020 on Sundays designated by the PA Game Commission.

Pennsylvania hunting seasons are regulated by the PA Game Commission and vary by species, region, date, firearm methods and antlers/antlerless deer. No hunting is allowed on Sundays except for foxes, crows, coyotes and the three dates summarized below. The rules are complicated so click here if you want to know the details.

Sunday Hunting in Pennsylvania in 2021

  • November 14: Small Game + Bear Archery + Deer Archery
  • November 21: Small Game + Bear Archery + Bear Rifle + Deer Archery
  • November 28: Bear Rifle + Deer Rifle

Sunday hunting is easiest to see on a calendar.

Sunday hunting in PA in 2021 using 123calendars.com

In Pennsylvania Small Game and Big Game seasons run from September through February (plus Wild Turkey in May). Be safe! Wear Orange!

Wear Orange sign (PA Game Commission), Blaze Orange Vest available on Amazon

NOTE! If you visit any State Game Lands from 15 November to 15 December you must wear a minimum of 250 square inches of fluorescent orange-colored material on the head, chest and back combined — whether you are hunting or not.

(deer photo from Wikimedia Commons, basic calendar from 123calendars.com, orange sign from PGC, orange vest from Amazon; click on the captions to see the originals)

Virgin Mary Vultures?

California condor (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

10 November 2021

Sometimes DNA tests reveal more than anyone thought possible.

In 1987 when California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) were close to extinction the California Condor Recovery Plan established a captive breeding program that resulted in 518 condors in the wild as of 2019. Built into the program are routine DNA tests of condor offspring to make sure they will not be inbred. When scientists in San Diego performed paternal analysis of two recent captive offspring they were in for a surprise. The two had no fathers even though male condors were present. The mothers hatched viable eggs without mating. Were they Virgin Mary Vultures?

Well, not really. In Christian and Muslim theology the Virgin Mary conceived Jesus through the Holy Spirit while still a virgin. These mother condors used asexual reproduction, parthenogenesis, to produce viable youngsters.

Female California condor with 30-day-old chick (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As Wikipedia explains, parthenogenesis occurs naturally in some plants, some invertebrate animals, and a few vertebrates including some fish, amphibians, reptiles and very rarely birds. But not in mammals. There are no known cases of naturally occurring mammalian parthenogenesis in the wild. If it happened the offspring would be female.

Parthenogenesis is incredibly rare in birds. KPBS describes how they found it in San Diego.

Does asexual reproduction ever happen among wild birds? We will never know.

Learn more about Parthenogenesis here. Read the published study at Facultative Parthenogenesis in California Condors.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, video embedded from KPBS)

Mallards Are Courting Now

Male mallards display in December (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

26 October 2021

In October male mallards challenge each other and pair with females. This seems odd since it isn’t the breeding season … but it is! Mallards pick their springtime mates in the fall.

The majority of pairs form on wintering grounds, far in advance of breeding. Mallard pairs form earlier (September–November) than do most Northern Hemisphere Anas species. At Ithaca, New York, courtship begins in September; 90% of females are paired by November. In coastal Louisiana, approximately 55% of migratory females arrived in November already paired; 95% paired by late December. 

Mallard Pair Formation: Cornell Lab’s Birds of the World

Courtship is easy to observe because the males show off in groups.

Social courtship [among mallards] occurs on open water. Several males gather around one female and perform displays directed at her. … Especially characteristic of Mallards are synchronized bursts of male displays (Grunt-Whistle, Head-Up-Tail-Up, or Down-Up) involving up to 5 males performing one of these displays each per bout.

Mallard behavior: Cornell Lab’s Birds Of The World

The male at top is performing the Head-Up-Tail-Up display. There are more courtship moves in this All About Birds video.

Listen for the high whistle of the males that are arching their backs and necks in the Grunt-Whistle display.

Competition is fierce and the ladies can afford to be choosy. In North America there are always more male mallards than females, averaging 1.33 to 1. When desperate a male may choose a female of another species. No wonder these ducks hybridize!

p.s. Maybe we’ll see courtship behavior at Duck Hollow next Sunday.

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

Watching A Volcano

Watching Cumbre Vieja eruption at La Palma, Canary Islands, 20 Sep 2021 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

24 October 2021

Is there a safe way to watch this volcano?

After eight days of earthquakes in mid-September the Cumbre Vieja volcano on La Palma (Canary Islands) began erupting on 19 September 2021. At first people watched nearby but the eruption intensified. Lava started flowing to the Atlantic Ocean.

Cumbre Vieja eruption, La Palma, Canary Islands, 21 Sep 2021 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

By the end of September the lava flow was building a delta, as seen by satellites.

La Palma lava flows into the sea, 30 Sep 2021 (photo from Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellites via Wikimedia Commons)

On 17 October 2021 Reuters reported the volcano is showing no signs of subsiding anytime soon.

Streams of lava have laid waste to more than 742 hectares (1,833 acres) of land and destroyed almost 2,000 buildings on La Palma since the volcano started erupting on Sept. 19.

About 7,000 people have been evacuated from their homes on the island, which has about 83,000 inhabitants and forms part of the Canary Islands archipelago off northwestern Africa.

All of the 38 flights which were scheduled to arrive or take off from La Palma airport on Sunday [17 Oct] were cancelled because of ash from the volcano.

Reuters: No end in sight to volcanic eruption on Spain’s La Palma, 17 Oct 2021

The Reuters video at this link shows how the eruption has affected the islands. Click here for an aerial flyover of the lava flow. It is sobering.

By now the eruption is far too dangerous to watch in the vicinity but we can view it Live on YouTube at: Live La Palma volcano eruption.

For best viewing watch the volcano after dark. Since the Canary Islands are off the coast of Africa, they are 5 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time. In the eastern U.S. begin watching in late afternoon to see lava flowing at night.

p.s. The Cumbre Vieja (Old Summit) volcano is located on La Palma, the upper left island below.

Map of Canary Islands (in German) showing location off the coast of Africa (map from Wikimedia Commons)

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

This Week’s Adventure

Sunset as we approach Phoenix from the air, 20 Oct 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

23 October 2021

Before COVID I used to travel about ten times a year but stopped abruptly in March 2020. This week saw our first air travel in nearly two years when my husband and I flew to Phoenix for a nephew’s wedding. I’d forgotten that air travel involves surprises, however minor, and that it’s tiring to pack and carry and rush and wait for hours on end.

Hello, Arizona. It’s been a long time since I was in the desert where the plants and birds are so different. In Phoenix the mosquitos are the same.

Here’s a selection of what I’ve seen so far. Normally I would identify everything but I am out of my element. Can you help?

Cholla cactus, 21 Oct 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Prickly pear (photo by Kate St. John)
Desert sunflower ??? 22 Oct 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Saguaro cacti usually grow straight-tipped branching arms but sometimes, rarely, the top of a saguaro grows a fan called a crested saguaro. Notice the woodpecker holes!

Crested saguaro, Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, 21 Oct 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday a flock of Life Birds flew by at sunrise and two of them — rosy-faced lovebirds — stopped to check out a woodpecker hole in a saguaro.

Rosy-faced lovebirds (Agapornis roseicollis) are native to the African desert and popular in the pet trade. In the late 1980s escaped pets established a feral population in Phoenix and are “countable” in eBird. Here’s what they look like in their home country of Namibia, Africa. (This photo is from Wikimedia Commons).

Rosy-faced lovebirds in Namibia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Awesome to see wild parrots in the desert.

p.s. I’m 3 hours behind Eastern time. My home world is so early!

(photos from Kate St. John except the rosy-faced lovebirds from Wikimedia Commons)

The Wild Zebras of Maryland

Zebras sneezing, Lake Naivasha, Kenya, 2007 (photo by Eric Brelsford via Flickr Creative Commons license)

15 October 2021

The saga of Kodiak the Steller’s sea eagle who escaped from Pittsburgh’s National Aviary on 25 September ended when he was captured on 3 October. Not so for the wild zebras of Maryland. No one thought they would still be roaming in October and yet …

On 31 August, three (*not five) zebras escaped from an 80-acre farm off Duley Station Road in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. One was found dead in an illegal snare trap on 16 September. Now more than seven weeks later two are still on the loose in Prince George’s County. It’s not for lack of trying.

Zebras are genetically programmed to escape lions, hyenas and cheetahs so they’re naturally wary and very fast. They can’t be caught by chasing, they have to be corralled. Caretakers and Prince George’s County Animal Control have been trying to lure them into a pen. The zebras are having none of it.

At first there were many reports including this 7 September news story from NBC Washington. Click here to read the details. (Note: With six zebras in camera view, I believe this footage was taken above the farm.)

Plus this nighttime sighting reported by WUSA9.com on 24 September.

But the news is quieter now. The zebras have plenty of grass to eat and lots of places to go. They’re winter-hardy and can be out there indefinitely.

Despite every attempt to domesticate them, zebras are forever wild.

p.s. For weeks the media reported that 5 zebras had escaped but on 14 October the Washington Post reported it was only three. At first three traveled together, then one died and it was two. Three + two = five? Not in this case.

UPDATE on 18 October: The latest plan for capturing the two zebras is to use more zebras!

UPDATE on 16 November: The zebras are still on the loose but there’s lots of news.

(photo by Eric Brelsford via Flickr, embedded videos and tweet from NBC Washington, WUSA9. Check @MarylandZebras for updates)