Archive for August, 2010

Aug 22 2010

Bald Blue Jays

Published by under Songbirds

Oh my gosh!  What happened to this bird?  Is he ill?

No, he’s molting. 

This week has been notable for the number of bald blue jays hanging out in my neighborhood.   The first one gave me a shock but now there are three and I’m getting used to it.  

Many birds are molting now but most of them lose a few feathers at a time so it’s not noticeable.  The exceptions – usually blue jays and cardinals – really stand out. 

They’re not unique to Pittsburgh.  This bird was photographed by Nancy Castillo who writes The Zen Birdfeeder in Saratoga Springs, NY. 

So why am I seeing three blue jays with bald heads?  At this time of year blue jays hang out in family groups so I might be observing a family with an inherited trait for temporary baldness.

Frankly I can’t wait until they’ve grown their new head feathers.  I’m embarrassed for them but it’s nothing a little time won’t heal.

(photo by Nancy Castillo.  Click on the photo to see her blog about this bird.)

17 responses so far

Aug 21 2010

Incoming!!

Published by under Water and Shore


Watch out below!  This green heron is zooming in for a landing!  

We normally see green herons from above and they look both green and chunky

This bird is likely a juvenile and from “straight on” he doesn’t look like a green heron at all.  Notice his foreshortened beak and big crest, his striped brown neck.  Wow, he’s thin!

For an even more stunning photo of a green heron, click on the photo above to see Steve Gosser’s website.

(photo by Steve Gosser taken at Conneaut, Ohio)

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Aug 20 2010

Anatomy: Chin

Published by under Bird Anatomy

A bird’s chin is exactly where you’d expect it to be – just under its beak — but of course birds’ chins don’t stick out like ours do.

Shown at right are common redpolls whose feathers give them a black chin (indicated by the blue arrow).  From a distance their black faces and chins make their yellow beaks stand out. 

I wish I could have chosen a Southwestern bird, the black-chinned sparrow, to illustrate this blog but I could not find a photo that I had permission to use.  Instead you’ll have to click here to see how stunning a gray bird with a black chin can be.

(photo by Mark McConaughy taken in January 2008 during a Common Redpoll irruption in western Pennsylvania)

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Aug 19 2010

Sad News about “Yellow”

Published by under Peregrines

Yesterday the juvenile female peregrine from Pitt nicknamed “Yellow” was found dead at Allegheny Center on the North Side with a broken neck.  She apparently hit a building.

Yellow had a hard, short life.  On June 24 she was rescued from the Webster Hall chimney where she was trapped and dehydrated.  Yellow spent many weeks in rehab and was in good condition when she was released late last month.  Alas, she didn’t make it.  The Fates were against her.

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Aug 19 2010

I’m Watching You

Published by under Peregrines


Last week’s Pop City slideshow was so nice that I asked the photographer, Brian Cohen, if I could feature another of his peregrine photos this week.  Here’s one from the Gulf Tower Banding in 2009.

After the chicks were returned to the nest that day, both adult peregrines perched on the nestbox roof and looked into the office window that’s normally obscured by blinds. 

Here, Louie gazes intently as the office crowd dissipates.  Brian gazes back and snaps his picture.

“I’m watching you.”

(photo by Brian Cohen)

4 responses so far

Aug 18 2010

Summer Beauty: Boneset

Published by under Plants


Watch for Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) blooming now in western Pennsylvania. 

Boneset’s common name comes from the old-time theory that boneset’s joined leaves meant it would heal broken bones.  Its scientific name, perfoliatum, also refers to the joined leaves which are perforated by the plant stem, as shown above. 

If you haven’t seen boneset blooming yet, you can find it at Jennings Prairie.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Aug 17 2010

How do cowbirds know they are cowbirds?


Earlier this month I visited Cape Cod and enjoyed sitting on my sister-in-law’s porch watching the birds go by.  One morning I saw a gang of two dozen birds land in her yard and poke through the grass looking for food.  They were the same size and color as juvenile starlings but they had black feather patches visible among the brown. 

What could they be?  With binoculars I was able to identify them as teenaged brown-headed cowbirds, molting into adult plumage.

If you think about how cowbirds grow up, it’s a wonder this gang existed at all.

Cowbird mothers lay their eggs in the nests of smaller birds.  Each cowbird chick is raised, not by its own mother, but by foster parents of another species.  Yet instead of flocking with their foster families these young cowbirds had found each other. 

How did they do it?  

Juvenile brown-headed cowbirds, even while in the nest, are attracted to the sounds of their own species, especially the chatter call.  As they grow up they pay attention to what they themselves look and sound like.  Occasionally adult cowbirds, possibly their parents, visit near the foster nest and show them cowbird behavioral tips. 

When the juvenile cowbirds become independent of their foster parents they use these visual and audio cues to find others of their own kind. 

Their first winter is crucial.  Studies have shown that if they’re forced to hang out with another species all winter, they think they’re a member of the other species and are confused for life.

So these teenage cowbird gangs serve a purpose.  Without them, cowbirds wouldn’t know they are cowbirds.

Maybe that would be OK. 

{Read Marianne’s comment below or this blog from 2008 to see why.}

(photo in the public domain from Wikimedia Commons.  Click the photo to see the original)

4 responses so far

Aug 16 2010

Whose Baby?

Published by under Quiz


Diane Korolog sent me this photograph of a baby bird.  Can you guess what species this is?  Here are some hints:

  • Look at its head shape, beak, nares and eye.
  • How about those claws?  What does this bird do with it’s feet?
  • He is not native to North America and
  • He is a very smart bird.

Bonus points for the exact species!

(photo by Diane Korolog)

8 responses so far

Aug 15 2010

Watch Out, Guys!

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs


Marcy Cunkelman found this alien in her yard and she’s happy to see her.

Some praying mantises are native to North America but many of the mantises we see are aliens.  They are so good at eating garden pests that they’re imported for biological pest control. 

Mantises are big predators, two inches long. Like raptors the females are larger than the males, but unlike birds mantises make no distinction about the type of bugs they’ll eat.  Cannibalism is part of their repertoire so the males are in real danger when they want to mate. 

Their courtship dance is an elaborate evasive maneuver in which the male attempts to distract the female away from eating to mating.  If he’s nimble and alert he can approach the female, mate with her and escape unscathed.  If he isn’t, she eats him.

“Oh well,” she thinks, after she eats him, “he probably wasn’t worth getting to know better.” 

Survival of the fittest indeed!

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

For more on praying mantises see this blog from October 2008.

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Aug 14 2010

Towers Change to Save Birds

Published by under Musings & News

By now we take communication towers for granted but 15 years ago they were far less common. 

It didn’t take long after towers dotted the landscape to find out they were deadly for birds, especially along migration corridors like the Gulf Coast, but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) refused to consult US Fish & Wildlife about potential wildlife impacts and would not notify the public before they permitted new towers. 

After many petitions the American Bird Conservancy and Earthjustice sued the FCC for violating federal law by approving dozens of new towers every year with little or no environmental review.

In February 2008 a federal appeals court ruled on the lawsuit and ordered the FCC to change course.  They’re now required to conduct careful environmental impact studies and hold public comment periods before approving potentially deadly towers.

Fast forward to 2010.  The FCC wants to increase wireless broadband services.  (Their plan includes killing off 40% of over-the-air television spectrum – very upsetting to us broadcasters!)   More wireless service means new towers and changes to existing towers.  Though the wireless industry does not formally agree that towers kill birds, the upcoming flurry of tower activity brought both sides to the table. 

The wireless infrastructure coalition and three bird conservation groups (American Bird Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society) negotiated interim standards for the FCC to use when permitting communication towers.  They sent their Memorandum of Understanding to the FCC in May.

The proposed rules will expedite the approval of bird friendly towers while requiring lengthy evaluations and reviews of new or changed equipment that’s likely to kill birds. 

So, what is a “bird friendly” tower?   It’s a tower that’s not tall (it’s under 350 feet), has no guy wires and is lit with a white strobe instead of non-blinking red lights. 

Steady red lights confuse birds because they use the sunset’s red wavelengths to navigate during nighttime migration.  Birds keep the red glow of sunset on one side of their faces to make sure they’re heading the right direction.  When they encounter a tall tower in nighttime fog, the steady red lights look like their navigational cue so they fly around and around the tower, hitting the guy wires or falling exhausted to the ground.  This is especially deadly at the Gulf Coast in spring when northbound migrants expect to make landfall but instead exhaust themselves circling the towers.  Five to 50 million birds die this way every year depending on the weather.

The proposed interim standards, when adopted by the FCC, will go a long way toward reducing bird deaths. New towers over 450 feet tall will always require an environmental assement and prior public notice.  Even changes to lighting systems from a more-preferred (bird-friendly) option to a less preferred option will require a public comment period and our comments (yes, we’re the public) may cause the FCC to determine that an environmental assessment is needed. 

I’m looking forward to the interim standards.  We — and the birds — won’t see so much red anymore.

(photo from Zhejiang Shengda Group, a communications tower manufacturer in China)

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