Category Archives: Musings & News

Frozen In Place

Downy woodpecker looks frozen in place (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Have you ever seen birds freeze in place when a hawk shows up?

Have ever you seen a squirrel become motionless in the presence of danger?

Squirrel “who thinks I won’t notice him if he holds really still” (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Animals know that if they don’t move, the predator won’t see them and they’ll survive. The ones that keep moving become lunch for the hawk.

Doctors, public health officials, and governments know that if humans freeze in place — before we know anyone who’s sick — more of us will survive COVID-19. They see the hawk before we do.

This 8-minute science video shows why closures and quarantines save lives. It’s not scary. Here’s what we learn: The number of new cases matters, not the total count.

And here’s some happy news: This week China turned the corner. The rate of new cases is dropping every day in China and they’ve started to relax restrictions.

Yes, there is light at the end of this tunnel but we must be patient, stay apart for a long time, and wait it out.

p.s. Most of us don’t know how to wash our hands. (I didn’t!) Lather for 20 seconds. Here’s how:

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; videos from PBS and Google)

Social Distancing!

Saffron finches display the proper social distance (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Around the world the COVID-19 emergency is forcing rapid changes to human society. In Pennsylvania nearly everything is closed; crowds of any kind are prohibited. If we go out at all, we must stay away from others and maintain a safe social distance (six feet). We cannot afford to spread this illness. The number of infections blows up like a bomb.

Birds don’t need to care about the disease — they won’t catch it — but these photos can illustrate social distancing.

Above, two saffron finches display a proper distance.

Below, the pigeons are WRONG! The group is small but they’re too close.

Small crowd of pigeons is too close (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The flock below is spawning a local epidemic. This crowd is NOT ALLOWED. It’s a petri dish of infection waiting to explode in 9-10 days.

Grackles on the wires: Too close and too many (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In case you don’t believe this is necessary, here’s a message for us from Italy, sent on 15 March 2020. They know what happens if you don’t stay away from each other BEFORE the need is apparent. On 15 March: “It is believed that the US, England and France are 9-10 days behind Italy in COVID-19 progression.”

9-10 days is next week, 24 or 25 March 2020. That’s why things are closed!

It’s like living in a war zone, but there is hope. Italians are singing from their balconies to keep their spirits up and the Chinese are sending encouragement.

Stay strong. Stay well. Stay apart. Stay home.

This too shall pass.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, videos from YouTube; click the captions or YouTube links to see the originals)

p.s. Birding alone in the woods is a safe social distance, but don’t count on finding a bathroom!

p.s. Here’s the latest coronavirus case map, US and world, from The Washington Post. Don’t get complacent about the numbers. Cases in New York state increased 70% in one day — Monday to Tuesday.

Hamsterkauf in Pittsburgh

Hamster stuffing his cheeks with dandelion leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 March 2020:

Yesterday was an eventful day for coronavirus preparedness in the U.S. Officials declared national, state and local emergencies, events were canceled everywhere, and public venues including schools closed through at least the end of March. U.S. testing capacity is woefully behind but there’s hope now that a coronavirus relief bill is moving quickly through the Capitol.

Meanwhile, anxious people are panic hoarding. By mid-week there was a sudden rush on toilet paper and bottled water as if preparing for a hurricane.

The Germans have an apt word for this: Hamsterkauf = “hamster” hoards in its cheeks (hamstern) + “buy” (kaufen). The hoarding hamster above is totally stuffing his cheeks despite the overabundance of dandelion leaves.

I haven’t been to the grocery store for a few days so I asked my friends what hamsterkauf looks like in Pittsburgh.

On Thursday 12 March at 5:30p John English reported, “Stopped at the Greenfield Giant Eagle for food. Toilet paper shelves are wiped clean. Paper towels were also flying off the shelves. Bottled water was limited to 4 cases per person. (I guess people never heard of water filters.)”

On Thursday 12 March at 7pm, Terry Wiezorek photographed the frozen food section at the North Hills Trader Joe’s.

“People be crazy”, 12 March 2020, 7p (photo by Terry Wiezorek)

On Friday 13 March at 2:30p, Sue Bodziach saw this in the Cranberry Walmart toilet paper aisle.

(photo by Sue Wargo Bodziach)

And on Friday 13 March at 4p, Shannon Platt found little to buy in the toilet paper aisle at Target on McKnight Road.

(photo by Shannon Platt)

Hoarding. Hoarding. Hamsterkauf.

Hamster with stuffed cheeks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s calm down.

Read more in these two articles: When will hamsterkauf become an English word? and Hamsterkauf: Germans and Austrians are panic buying due to coronavirus.

(photos of hamsters from Wikimedia Commons, store photos by Terry Wiezorek, Sue Bodziach and Shannon Platt)

Which Stork Brings Babies?

For a week the blog has been All Peregrines All The Time. It’s time now for something completely different.

When I wrote about the Marabou stork (below) in A Face That’s Hard To Love, Nan asked, “Why would something so ugly be associated with delivering babies?”

Marabou stork closeup (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Well, the ugly Marabou stork is not the baby-delivery bird.

There are 20 members in the stork family, only one of which is famous in the baby fable. Can you guess which one it is from this list of five? Leave a comment with your answer.

1. Wood stork (Mycteria americana) is found year round in South America, Central America and Florida.

Wood stork (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

2. African openbill (Anastomus lamelligerus) is native to Sub-Saharan Africa.

African openbill (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

3. Saddle-billed stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis) from Africa is closely related to the black-necked stork of Asia and Australia.

Saddle-billed stork in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4. White stork (Ciconia ciconia) is found in Europe, Africa and Asia.

White storks at their nest (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

5. Jabiru (Jabiru mycteria) is native to Central and South America. Sometimes it visits Texas. (Yoga fans, notice that this stork is doing the Tree Pose.)

Jabiru (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Can you guess which stork “brings babies”? If you’re stumped or you’d like to know more, find the answer in this vintage article:

What’s Beyond Flamingos?

American flamingos and horned grebes (photos from Wikimedia Commons and Steve Gosser)

A couple of weeks ago we learned the amazing fact that grebes are the flamingo’s closest relatives. The next related bird, beyond flamingos, is amazing too. The sandgrouse (Pteroclidae) looks like a pigeon!

Chestnut-bellied sandgrouse, female and male (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Sandgrouse (Pteroclidae) are seed-eating birds native to Africa and Asia that are famous for carrying water in their specialized belly feathers. The male sandgrouse flies as much as 18 miles from his nest to a watering hole where he soaks his belly in water.  He then flies back to the nest where his young squeeze his belly feathers to get a drink.

The sandgrouse is nothing like a flamingo or grebe but he’s descended from the same extinct ancestor that spawned flamingos, grebes, sandgrouse, mesites and doves. The pink circle around the number 95 in the phylogenomic supertree shows where the birds diversified. (“95” is that ancestor.)

Phylogenomic supertree of birds from oldest to newest (image by Rebecca T Kimball et al, MDPI, July 2019)

Who’s related to the sandgrouse? An extinct ancestor at “85” in the supertree spawned sandgrouse, mesites and doves (Columbidae).

This is the sandgrouse’s city kin. He’s also related to flamingos. 🙂

Feral rock pigeon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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

Birds Uncover Illegal Fishing

Wandering albatross (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As human population soars and fish populations plummet illegal fishing has ramped up in the world’s oceans. With 50% of the world’s fish population now gone, countries protect fish within their 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) but dishonest fishing vessels sneak in to capture endangered species and overfish what’s left.

Catching the perpetrators, or even knowing they’re out there, has been quite difficult despite the ability to track them by satellite. That’s because dishonest vessels turn off their Automatic Identification System (AIS) satellite transponders so they can’t be seen. The boats travel safely without AIS; they use radar to avoid collisions and find fish.

In 2017 Henri Weimerskirch and colleagues at Centre of Biological Studies Chizé launched an innovative study to uncover the extent of illegal fishing. They equipped wandering albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) with radar detectors that transmit location data to satellites. The research team then matches albatross radar sightings to AIS satellite sightings. If there’s a radar ping but no AIS, the boat is operating illegally.

Wandering albatross east of Tasman Peninsula (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The research team expanded the study in 2019 by fitting 169 albatrosses from Crozet and two other islands with radar detectors (map below). From December 2018 to June 2019 the albatrosses encountered 353 ships, 37% of which had turned off their AIS.

Global Fishing Watch map highlighting Crozet Islands Exclusive Economic Zone (screenshot from globalfishingwatch.org)

After a 6-month study with the large seabirds, the researchers estimate that more than one-third of vessels in the southern Indian Ocean are sailing undercover, confirming concerns about illegal or unreported fishing.

Seabird cops spy on sneaky fishing vessels

Armed with this new data, enforcement can now focus on the hotspots of illegal activity. Ideally it will lead to more arrests like the one pictured below in the North Pacific in 2008.

U.S. Coast Guard seizes a Chinese fishing vessel suspected of illegal large-scale high-seas drift net fishing 460 miles east of Hokkaido, Japan. Coast Guard photo taken by USCGC Munro. 11 Sep 2008 (photo by U.S. Coast Guard via Flickr)

Read more about the albatross project in Science Magazine: Seabird cops spy on sneaky fishing vessels.

See the full study at PNAS: Ocean sentinel albatrosses locate illegal vessels.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Flickr, map screenshot from Global Fishing Watch; click on the captions to see the originals)

In Order, First To Last

Ostriches are oldest, closest to the dinosaurs (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Which bird is closest to the dinosaurs? Which one is the newest species? The answer has changed in the last 30 years.

The taxonomic order of birds used to be rather stable. North American field guides, listed in evolutionary order from oldest to newest, had loons at the beginning and sparrows at the end. Then in 1991 everything changed.

Scientists began using DNA sequencing to see who’s related to whom. They learned that ducks and geese are older than loons, loons are related to penguins, falcons are related to parrots (not hawks), and grosbeaks are newer than sparrows.

The phylogenomic supertree below, current to July 2019, shows the new relationships in a clockwise spiral from the center. The first bird, closest to the dinosaurs, is the common ostrich (Struthio camelus), photo at top.

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

The last and newest bird is the yellow-shouldered grosbeak (Parkerthraustes humeralis(*)), native to western Amazonia in South America.

Yellow-shouldered grosbeak, the ‘newest’ bird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As of February 2020 there are 10,928 species on the worldwide taxonomic checklist of birds. Regional checklists show a subset of birds, limited by geographical or political boundaries, so the first and last birds vary by checklist:

First and last in Pennsylvania: Black-bellied whistling duck and dickcissel (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Additional DNA sequencing will change the lists over and over again.

I wonder who will be first and last in 2050.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, phylogenomic supertree from MDPI; click on the captions to see the originals)

p.s. (*) DNA sequencing gave the yellow-shouldered grosbeak a new genus — Parkerthraustis — named for the late Theodore A. “Ted” Parker III, a superb field ornithologist who died in a plane crash in Ecuador in 1993, age 40.

p.p.s. Click here to see a more detailed phylogenetic tree (in 2012 by University of New South Wales).

The Flamingo’s Closest Relatives

American flamingos in Celestún National Park, Yucatán, Mexico (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Because they have long necks and long legs and stand around in shallow water you would think that flamingos are related to herons, but they’re not.

DNA sequencing has shown that the flamingos’ closest relatives are grebes.

Horned grebes in western PA, Feb 2014 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Read more about their amazing relationship in this vintage article:

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

Space Junk May Collide Over Pittsburgh Tonight

Space junk collision (screenshot from PBS Be Smart video)

Wednesday, 29 January 2020:

Chances are it won’t happen but …

Tonight at around 6:39pm two defunct satellites that are still in orbit have a 1% (or less) chance of colliding 900km (560 miles) above Pittsburgh. They’ll be traveling toward each other at 32,880 mph!

If they don’t collide, everyone who has anything to do with satellites will breathe a sigh of relief because there will be that much less out-of-control space junk for their own satellites to hit.

If they do collide they won’t hurt us. At best we’ll see a few shooting stars as the bits burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. But we probably won’t see anything because Pittsburgh’s cloud cover will be 40% at that point. Check out the Clear Dark Sky chart for the forecast (screenshot below).

Here’s the original collision prediction from LeoLabs, an outfit in California that tracks space junk and potential collisions.

See KDKA’s announcement with video.

And here’s a more in depth article from Forbes Magazine.

In the meantime, LeoLabs revised their estimate to a pass distance of 13-87 meters and a 1 in 1000 chance of collision.

I’ll bet we won’t see any stars tonight.

(screenshot of space junk collision from PBS Be Smart video; click on the caption to see the original video)

UPDATE on 31 January 2020: No, they didn’t hit but they came mighty close. Analysis by LeoLabs at The IRAS / GGSE 4 Close Approach.

On Vortex Street

Clouds on the lee side of Guadalupe Island, Mexico, 24 May 2017 (image from NASA’s Landsat satellite)

What do these photos and video have in common?

Smokestacks at Proserpine Mill, Jan 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

humming sound of wind in the wires (turn up speakers)

Answer: All three indicate the presence of — or potential for — a von Kármán vortex street.

When you’re in the neighborhood, this street is a fluid dynamic place. Learn more in this vintage article as we go Walking Down Vortex Street. (click the link)

(photos NASA and Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. video by Megan Lewis on YouTube)