Category Archives: Nesting & Courtship

To Lek or Not to Lek: Grackles Lead Different Lives

Male common grackle, puff and “skrinnk” (photo by Norm Townsend via Flickr Creative Commons license)

23 March 2023

Lek: an assembly area where animals (such as the prairie chicken) carry on display and courtship behavior. Also an aggregation of animals assembled on a lek for courtship.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Male prairie chickens hold a lek to attract females and according to this diagram so do “grackles.” It was exciting to think that the puff and “skrinnk” of male common grackles in Pittsburgh was a lek. But it’s not! The three species of grackles in North America lead very different lives.

Common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula), are usually monogamous and may nest alone or colonially with up to 200 pairs in a single colony.

Common grackles, Bill Up Display (photo by Tony Morris via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Bill Up is a male-to-male threat display. The puff and skrinnk is Song during courtship.

Boat-tailed grackles (Quiscalus major), found in Florida and along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, nest in harems. The males gather in leks to attract the females.

Boat-tailed grackles perform during the breeding season (photo by shell game via Flickr Creative Commons license)
Male boat-tailed grackles on the lek (photo by Judy Gallagher on Flickr via Creative Commons license)

Female boat-tailed grackles are dull brown and laid back compared their male counterparts.

Female boat-tailed grackle (photo by Melissa McMaster via Flickr Creative Commons licnse)

Great-tailed grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus), found west of the Mississippi and in Central America, gather in noisy winter flocks.

Great-tailed grackle flock (photo by Phillip Cowan via Flickr Creative Commons license)

In the breeding season they don’t use leks and they aren’t monogamous.

Great-tailed grackle (photo by designwallah via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Birds of the World explains:

[Their] mating system can be described as non-faithful female frank polygyny, in which a territorial male has one or more social mates, each female has one social mate, and both sexes employ extra-pair copulation as a conditional mating tactic. Territorial males defend a small territory including from 1 to several trees, where one or more females nest. The male protects nestlings hatched on his territory, but not nestlings from other territories. He copulates with his social mates and may attempt to copulate with other females. 

Birds of the World: Great-tailed grackle account

Frankly, all the great-tailed grackles mess around. Even the females swagger.

Female great-tailed grackle (photo by Charlie Jackson via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Though they’re all called “grackles” they don’t act the same.

(photos are Flickr Creative Commons licensed and credited in the captions, click on the captions to see the originals)

Is There A Challenger At The Pitt Peregrine Nest?

Morela at the Pitt peregrine nest, 21 March, 2:07pm (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

22 March 2023

See Status Updates at the end.

As I mentioned yesterday morning Morela was looking as if she’d lay an egg any minute, but yesterday everything changed. After days of lounging at the nest and crouching over the scrape Morela was barely on camera at all. When she returned in the afternoon she looked vigilant. Meanwhile Ecco spent 2.5 hours waiting at the nest, sometimes watching the sky.

What’s up with Morela? Why isn’t she trying to lay an egg? I think she may have a challenger who’s keeping her busy.

From just after midnight on 21 March through 7:00am 22 March (today) this timelapse video shows how both peregrines are absent from the nest. I’ve provided a description of the action below the video, some illustrated with snapshots.

Activities on the video:

  1. Morela is at the nest nearly continuously on Tuesday 21 March from midnight to 4:50am when she jumped to the roof, still present at the nest though not visible.
  2. Morela looks relaxed for an hour at the nest 9:50-10:57am. Then she disappears.
  3. Ecco takes her place for more than an hour 10:59am-12:02pm. Ecco has a bright orange beak and legs compared to Morela’s pale yellow.
  4. Ecco stops in briefly and watches the sky.
  5. Morela’s back at the nest 2:03pm-3:32pm, for about 90 minutes, but she looks sleek and vigilant, not egg-y at all.
  6. Ecco returns for 90 minutes, 5:29p-6:56pm.
  7. Neither bird is at the nest after that.

The photos are numbered to match what they illustrate.

#1. Morela is on the roof during the early morning hours of 21 March.

Morela on roof of nestbox before dawn on 21 March 2023, 6am (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

#3. Ecco has bright orange beak and legs.

Ecco has bright orange beak and legs

#3 and #5 Morela’s beak and legs are yellow, not orange. At 2:00pm she looks sleek and vigilant, not egg-y at all.

Morela looks vigilant, 21 March 2023, 14:44 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

#4 Ecco stops in briefly and watches the sky.

Ecco watches the sky. Who’s up there? (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Neither bird is at the nest today which indicates again that there’s probably a challenger.

Fingers crossed that the intruder is driven off soon. Go, Morela!

UPDATE on Morela and Ecco as of Friday 24 March 2023, 5:50 am:

  • Morela’s most recent appearance at the nest: Tues 21 March at 3:32pm.
  • Morela last seen: Vigilant on Heinz Chapel scaffolding Wed 22 March at 4:14pm.
  • Ecco last seen: Watchful at the nest, Thurs 23 March at 5:13pm.
  • The Challenger: Has not been seen yet (which is good news).

My conclusion from these sightings: The challenger is female. Morela is keeping her away the Cathedral of Learning but has not vanquished her yet. The challenger has not won either.

(photos from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Waiting For An Egg

Morela looks egg-y, 20 March 2023, 9:57am (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

21 March 2023

For almost a week Morela has looked as if she’ll lay an egg any minute at the Cathedral of Learning peregrine nest. Yesterday morning we thought she was ready. She lumbered off the green perch and stood in the scrape. We watched and waited.

But minutes later Ecco showed up with a snack. Morela didn’t tell him “Go away I’m busy.” Instead she got up to grab it and eventually left to eat. As Ecco steps up to watch her leave, he realizes he has fluff stuck to his toes.

This morning at 6:54am there is still no egg. So we’re still waiting.

Morela but no egg at the nest, 21 March 2023, 6:54am (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Morela, of course, is waiting more than any of us.

Will she lay her first egg today? Stay tuned the National Aviary Falconcam at the Cathedral of Learning.

UPDATE, 22 March 2023: See this article about a possible challenger.

(photos and video from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Preparing To Set Up His Harem

Male red-winged blackbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

15 March 2023

The guys are back in town! Male red-winged blackbirds returned to western Pennsylvania early this month to get a jump on the breeding season. Males arrive 2-4 weeks before the females in order to shake down who owns what territory before the ladies get here.

Male red-winged blackbird claiming territory (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The best territories are in the middle of a marsh and claiming a good one is extremely important. When the females arrive they chose a mate based in part on the quality of his territory. If the male and his territory are exceptional, up to 15 females join his harem.

Female red-winged blackbird with nesting material (photo fro Wikimedia Commons)

According to Birds of the World, experiments have shown that females prefer a harem on good territory to being the lone mate of a male on poor territory. Female red-winged blackbirds would rather be one of many wives than alone with one male in a lousy home. With that in mind the males are getting ready to set up their harems.

Watch for the arrival of female red-winged blackbirds in late March or early April. You’ll hear the boisterous clamor of males when they see the flocks of females.

This 3-minute video shows red-winged blackbird behavior in the spring.

video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology on YouTube

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology on YouTube; click on the captions to see the originals)

Do You Want A Snack?

Morela looks up as Ecco brings a snack, 6 March 2023 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

7 March 2023

This month Morela has been staying close to the Cathedral of Learning peregrine nest as her egg laying time approaches. Yesterday afternoon she was snoozing on the green perch when she saw or heard Ecco’s approach.

“Do you want a snack?”

“Yes!” And then lots of chatter as they discuss it.

In the middle of the video Morela jumps to the roof while Ecco is still off camera in the keyhole. We can’t see either bird because the streaming cam view is so close, but you can see the shadow of Morela’s tail.

Morela is on the nestbox roof, 6 March 2023 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

And you can see Morela’s toes on the nestbox roof in the snapshot camera view.

Morela’s toes are showing as she perches on the nestbox roof, 6 March 2023 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot cam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

At last Ecco presents the snack. It looks like he ate most of it already.

Ecco brings a snack for Morela, 6 March 2023 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Stay tuned to the National Aviary Falconcam at the Cathedral of Learning. Morela will lay eggs in the next week or two.

(photos and video from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Bow and Sashay at the Nest

3 March 2023

This morning we may be two weeks away from the first Pitt peregrine egg of 2023. Morela’s first egg in 2021 was March 17, last year it was March 18. But who knows? She could be early or late this year.

Yesterday the pair had three bowing sessions at the nest. The first was brief and initiated by Ecco. The second was longer and Morela stuck around to dig the scrape. The third was unusual: Morela spent the entire time on the nestbox roof while Ecco bowed below. Did you see her yell at him from the roof? Check out this photo.

When the pair is not together one of them may be on the green perch, stepping in a sideways sashay. (This sashay video repeats the steps for emphasis.)

While you watch the falconcam get some practice identifying the birds with the two-photo slideshow at top. Notice that Ecco is small, has brighter-white and darker-gray feathers (more contrast), and has bright orange skin on this face and legs. Morela’s feathers are duller with less contrast, she’s bigger, and she has a peachy chest.

Click here and scroll down to watch the National Aviary Falconcam at the Cathedral of Learning. The Birdwatchers Store in Slippery Rock, PA is sponsoring the falconcam!

(photos and video from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Did A Blue Jay Make That Sound?

Blue jay at Frick Park, January 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

27 February 2023

Spring is coming and blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) are talking about it. In addition to their typical “Jeer!” calls, they now make odd sounds that you might not recognize.

Here are two courtship season sounds, Pumphandle and Rattle, followed by an everyday “Jeer!” (You’ll also hear a crow, white-breasted nuthatch and others in this sound bite.)

Blue jays bob up and down when they make the Pumphandle sound and, according to the Stokes Guide, it “may be directed at other males in a courtship group or a predator.” When it’s directed at a predator it’s a low intensity comment as if to say, “I see you, Hawk, but you’re not threatening yet.”

Rattle calls are made only by females! Vassar’s website says, they’re “a series of rapid clicks that often have one sharp click at the beginning and end of the call, often emitted within a flock, as alert calls, or when another jay intrudes on a pair’s space.”

Seeing is believing. Watch the spring calls and sounds of blue jays in two videos by Lesley The Bird Nerd.

If you heard these sounds without seeing the bird making them, would you think it was a blue jay?

(photo by Charity Kheshgi, videos embedded from Lesley The Bird Nerd)

Peregrine Update, Southwest PA, 23 Feb 2023

Ecco and Morela bow in courtship, 21 Feb 2023 (screenshot from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

23 February 2023

Peregrine falcons in southwestern PA are preparing for the nesting season by conspicuously claiming territory and courting mates. Here’s a roundup of recent peregrine news plus a regional map of known sites. Notice the dates. If you want to see a peregrine falcon, now is the time to do it!

Peregrine locations in Southwestern PA (annotated by Kate St. John)

This eBird map of recent sightings shows that peregrine locations are skewed north of the City of Pittsburgh. There may be peregrines south of Pittsburgh but we need observers along the Monongahela River.

eBird map of peregrine sightings in southwestern PA, Jan-Feb 2023, screenshot of map

Cathedral of Learning, Univ of Pittsburgh:

Where to look on the Cathedral of Learning, from Forbes Ave side (photo by Kate St. John)

Morela and Ecco have been staying close to home at the Cathedral of Learning and visiting their nestbox every day. The easiest way to see them is “live” on the National Aviary falconcam, video below.

If they’re not on the falconcam check all the perches at the top of the building (area highlighted above). Peregrines somehow manage to match the building so you’ll need binoculars.

Last year Morela laid her first egg on 18 March. When will her first egg appear this year?

Downtown Pittsburgh:

Will the peregrines use this location in 2023? (photo by Kate St. John)

Montgomery Brown reports the Downtown peregrines in eBird from a vantage point at One Oxford Center, most recently on 8 Feb. Have peregrines shown up at the 3rd Avenue nest site yet (photo above)? More observers needed!

UPDATE on 24 Feb 2023: Jeff Cieslak photographed a peregrine perched at the 3rd Avenue nest ledge as seen from Mt. Washington.

Peregrine at the 3rd Ave nest ledge, 24 Feb 2023 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

p.s. Are any peregrines at the Gulf Tower? No. Peregrines have not used the Gulf Tower site since 2017. Observers in the building will let us know if the peregrines show up.

Monaca RR Bridge, Ohio River:

Peregrines at Monaca RR Bridge, 9 Jan 2023 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

Dante Zuccaro reports one or two peregrines almost every day at the Monaca Railroad Bridge as seen from the mouth of the Beaver River. Check the bridge closely. This pair is very reliable but hard to see. Jeff Cieslak’s photo is from 9 January.

Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge, Ohio River:

Ambridge Bridge, 20 Feb 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

This winter Mark Vass periodically has seen one or two peregrines at the Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge, most recently on 20 February. In five years a nest has never been confirmed.

Sewickley Bridge, Ohio River:

Peregrine on the Sewickley Bridge, 9 Jan 2022 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

On an errand in Sewickley yesterday I saw one peregrine atop the Sewickley Bridge. A pair was seen as recently as 11 February. Keep an eye on the Sewickley Bridge in case the peregrines decide to nest there.

Eckert Street near McKees Rocks Bridge, Ohio River:

Peregrine flies by the power tower near Alcosan, 9 Jan 2023 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

While on Ohio River Boulevard yesterday I saw a peregrine perched on the power tower near Alcosan thanks to the McKees Rocks Bridge stoplight. The tower is a favorite hangout of the Eckert Street Bridge peregrines who raised four young last spring.

Jeff Cieslak often visits the Eckert Street territory and provides this map of places to see the peregrines. His “Ohio River Boulevard” arrow points to Eckert Street.

Map of McKees Rocks Bridge area including power tower (screenshot from Google maps markup by Jeff Cieslak )

Westinghouse Bridge, Turtle Creek:

Peregrine at Westinghouse Bridge, 18 Feb 2023 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

The Westinghouse Bridge peregrines have become more visible as they ramp up to the nesting season. Dana Nesiti stops by to see them when he gets a break from photographing the Hays bald eagles. This pair is easy to see before the female lays eggs in mid to late March.

Tarentum Bridge, Allegheny River:

Peregrine at the Tarentum Bridge, 7 Feb 2023 (photo by Dave Brooke)

The Tarentum Bridge peregrines are very conspicuous lately and seen by many observers. In Dave Brooke’s photo above, the female is perched on the navigation lightpole with a full crop.

Graff Bridge, Rt 422, Kittanning, Allegheny River:

Under the Graff Bridge as seen from the Armstrong Trail, 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

This winter Theo Rickert has been checking the Graff Bridge near Kittanning with good success and reported two peregrines on site on 19 February. This nest site is probably used every year but sometimes no one notices. Thank you, Theo!

No recent news: There’s been no news since last year from three sites.

Clairton Coke Works: This nest produced three young last year but it cannot be seen outside the premises. We await news from USS employees at Clairton Coke Works.

62nd Street Bridge / Highland Park Bridge / Aspinwall Riverfront Park, Allegheny River: There are 3 bridges to check in close proximity, any one of which might have a peregrine family. Take a look and tell me if you find a peregrine.

62nd Street and Highland Park bridges as seen from underneath Aspinwall RR bridge (photo by Kate St. John)

Speers Railroad Bridge, Washington County, Monongahela River: No news from this site for over a year. Observers needed!

Additional bridges to watch: Peregrines love to perch on top of bridges. Check these out!

  • West End Bridge, Ohio River.
  • Bridges at Downtown Pittsburgh over the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers including Roberto Clemente (6th), Andy Warhol (7th), Rachel Carson (9th), Smithfield Street
  • 40th Street Bridge, Allegheny River
  • Glenwood Bridge, Monongahela River

Check out any site and tell me what you see. Need directions? Leave a comment.

(photos by Kate St. John, National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh, Jeff Cieslak, Dana Nesiti, Dave Brooke)

Preparing The Nest

Ecco and Morela bow at the Cathedral of Learning nest, 20 Feb 2023 (phot ofrom the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

21 February 2023

Even though Morela won’t lay eggs until mid March, the peregrine falcon pair at the Cathedral of Learning are actively courting and preparing their nest. Yesterday they bowed for several minutes and dug the scrape.

Peregrines don’t build stick nests. Instead they lay eggs in a bowl that they scrape in dirt or gravel on their chosen cliff ledge. The bowl prevents their eggs from rolling off the cliff and shelters the eggs while they incubate. The nest is the bowl; it’s called a “scrape. “

In late February and early March the Pitt peregrines spend ever longer periods at the nest, together or separately. Yesterday morning Ecco called Morela to come join him. When she didn’t arrive he dug at the scrape.

By 10am Ecco had convinced Morela to bow with him. Notice how they nearly touch beaks.

After their bowing session Morela went through the motions of digging at the scrape, then stood in it a while. Maybe she was thinking of the day she’ll lay an egg.

Every day Morela and Ecco are spending more time at the nest. Watch them on the National Aviary falconcam at the Cathedral of Learning.

(photos and videos from the National Aviary falconcam at the Cathedral of Learning)

Egg Watch in Progress at Pittsburgh Bald Eagle Nests

Hays bald eagles: Female and male vocalizing, 12 Feb 2023 (photo by Dana Nesiti at Eagles of Hays PA on Facebook)

17 February 2023

It’s that time of year again when Southwestern Pennsylvania’s bald eagles refurbish their nests and start to lay eggs. Two Pittsburgh area nests, Hays and USS Irvin, are in the midst of Egg Watch.

Distance between Hays and Irvin eagles’ nests in Allegheny County (map generated from

Hays Bald Eagles:

Yesterday morning the camera was zoomed out to see both eagles at the nest tree. It will zoom close to watch for eggs. UPDATES

  • 1st hatch at Hays nest, 26 Mar 2023 @noon
  • 2nd hatch at Hays nest, 28 Mar 2023 @7pm
screenshot from Pittsburgh Hays Bald Eaglecam, ASWP, 16 Feb 2023, 7:53am

By the time you read this the first egg may have arrived, but watch for a second in the day(s) ahead. Here’s how:

USS Irvin Bald Eagles:

This pair has been on site since 2019 and on camera since December 2021. There is no in-person viewing location so check them out on the USS Irvin eaglecam. UPDATES:

YouTube splash screen of USS bald eagle cam at Irvin Works; click on the image to see the cam

(photo of Hays bald eagle pair by Dana Nestiti at Eagles of Hays PA, map via gmap-pedometer, screenshot from ASWP’s Hays Eaglecam, screenshot from USS Irvin Works eaglecam on YouTube)