Archive for the 'Bird Behavior' Category

Nov 24 2015

Where’s The Roost?

Winter’s coming and the crows are back in Pittsburgh.

Last week at dusk I saw 3,000 flying over Shadyside heading directly west, but I don’t know where they were heading.

Four years ago they roosted above the Strip District near 21st Street and Liberty Ave where Sharon Leadbitter captured them in this video.  But there’s no guarantee that’s their favored place this year.

When crows become too annoying we humans apply just enough pressure to move them along.  Sometimes they move a little, sometimes a lot.   The year they quit the Strip District they chose an abandoned spot in the Hill District.

Where’s the crow roost this year?  Have you seen it?

We need to know before Pittsburgh’s Christmas Bird Count on December 26 so we can count the crows. :)


(Youtube video by Sharon Leadbitter)

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Nov 20 2015

A Stinky Surprise

Last Friday I showed how bored birds can cause car trouble.  This week another bird — who isn’t bored at all! — creates a future mess.

In the video above, a common raven at the Juneau, Alaska airport decides to cache a bit of salmon in the grill of a rental car.  He flips it and hides it in various spots in the grill.

The video’s author says the raven is hiding food from his own reflection and challenging himself when he pecks at the window.

I’m not so sure he’s confused by his reflection  … but no matter what this raven is thinking the next person to rent the car will be in for a stinky surprise!


(video from YouTube. Click on the YouTube logo to see the details)

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Nov 18 2015

Ravens Console Each Other

A pair of ravens in Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A pair of ravens in Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We’ve all seen it happen.  Two people fight in public, perhaps with only words and innuendo.   When the fight is over, some of the bystanders console the victim.

This kind of consoling is a rare trait among species, especially when those involved have no pair bond.  Humans and chimpanzees exhibit “affiliation behavior” but we thought it didn’t happen among birds until a 2010 report in PLOS One showed that ravens do it, too.

The Konrad Lorenz Research Station in Austria studies behavioral ecology and animal cognition, often focusing on the ravens whom they house on site.  For the 2010 study, Orlaith N. Fraser and Thomas Bugnyar worked with a group of 13 young hand-raised ravens, some of whom were related.

Ravens live in dynamic social groups so, inevitably, fights break out.  For two years the researchers tracked the winners, losers, and bystanders, and the intensity of the fights.  The data showed that bystander ravens console the losers with whom they have a relationship — more so if the fight was intense.  Sometimes the bystanders step in without being asked, sometimes the victims seek consolation.   Interestingly, the fights were more likely to stop when the victim sought consolation from friends.

The study concluded that “ravens may be sensitive to the emotions of others.”

Of course they are.

Click here to read more at PLOS One.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Nov 13 2015

Beware The Bored Bird


When highly intelligent birds are bored, watch out!

Keas (Nestor notabilis) are wild parrots on the South Island of New Zealand who love to explore and use their sharp beaks to open whatever they find. They’re not kept as pets because they literally will take your house apart.

Watch them take apart the police car.


Pet parrots invent similar projects when they’re bored. Give them something to do or they’ll destroy the woodwork!


p.s. This article was spawned by Ted Floyd’s mention of keas and Jack Solomon’s post of the police car video on Facebook. Thanks!

(video from YouTube)

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Nov 06 2015

What Happens At A Clearcut?

Tree removal project at Central Catholic, 30 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Before I retired from WQED in September 2014, this was the view outside my window … except there were trees.

Last month contractors removed all the trees on the hillside between CMU’s new Tepper Quad and Central Catholic’s football field.  By the time I saw it a week ago it looked like this.

Hillside denuded by tree removal project at Central Catholic, 30 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

To give you an idea of what it used to look like, here’s a view of the remaining trees behind WQED.

Trees remaining on hillside behind WQED, 30 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

In the grand scheme of things this was a small woodlot surrounded by parking lots and an astroturf field, host to many invasive species.

Does it matter that humans removed this small landscape?

It does to the animals who lived there.

In the remaining woodlot behind WQED two squirrels fought a territorial battle. The loud one said, “This is mine! You have to leave!” The other cowered but stayed nearby. Probably a refugee.

Winter or a predator will determine who survives.


(photos by Kate St. John)

p.s. Does anyone know whose project this is (CMU or Central Catholic?) and why it was done?

UPDATE:  I haven’t been back to the site for a week but friends confirm that this is a CMU project and that all the trees are gone now.  Every single one.

7 responses so far

Nov 05 2015


Starlings in monochrome (photo by Mr. T in DC, via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Starlings in monochrome (photo by Mr. T in DC, via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

In Pittsburgh we don’t have sandpipers but in the winter we have something similar.  Can we call them “land-pipers?”

Click here for a Throw Back Thursday article from 2008 about our substitute for shorebirds: Land-pipers.


UPDATE:  Richard Nugent suggests they be called “lawn-pipers.”   Excellent name!

(photo by “Mr. T in DC”, via Flickr, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original.)

One response so far

Nov 02 2015

What The Heck Are They Saying?

Cawing about ... what? (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Cawing about … what? (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


In case you haven’t noticed yet, the winter crow flock is back in town.  They’ve been in the East End of Pittsburgh since at least October 15 but our daily rounds have been out of synch with their activities until now.

Today, with sunrise and sunset an hour earlier, we’ll see the crows commuting during rush hour and we’ll certainly hear them.  Why are they so loud in the morning?  What the heck are they saying?

Last month I participated in a live Cornell Lab of Ornithology webinar on Understanding Bird Behavior by crow expert, Kevin McGowan.  He gave tips on observing birds with examples of what the behaviors mean. McGowan was especially insightful on the subject of crows.

Most of the time cawing pretty much means “Hey! Hey! HEY!” but in the morning crows take a neighborhood census.  McGowan suggested their conversation goes something like this:

Hey, Bob, did you die last night?

I’m alive! So don’t bother coming over and trying to take things.  And leave my mate alone.


In the quick YouTube video below McGowan describes crow and raven vocalizations.  We don’t know exactly what they’re saying but we can often guess.


Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a wide selection of educational webinars that you can watch any time for a small fee.  Click here to see what’s on offer.

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Oct 29 2015

Yes, They’re At Home

E2: hoping Dorothy will take the hint, 24 Oct 2015 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

E2 at the nest perch, 24 Oct 2015 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Yesterday Barbara Hancey asked if Dorothy and E2 are still at home at the Cathedral of Learning.

Yes, they are.

On campus my friend Karen Lang and I have seen at least one peregrine, sometimes both, several times a week. The birds are much less active than they are in the spring and they have very little interest in visiting the nest.

Like all birds peregrine falcons are sensitive to seasonal light changes.  As the days get shorter their reproductive hormones cease and their interest in breeding — and in the nest — ceases, too.

The snapshots above (E2) and below (Dorothy) show they currently visit about once a week.  This frequency will drop even further and won’t ramp up again until February.

Dorothy makes a quick visit to the nest,19 Oct 2015 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Dorothy makes a quick visit to the nest,19 Oct 2015 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)


(photos from the National Aviary snapshot camera at the University of Pittsburgh)

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Oct 16 2015

Young Eagles Eat Junk Food

Juvenile bald eagle hunting in Florida (photo by Chuck Tague)

Juvenile bald eagle hunting for fish (photo by Chuck Tague)

For juvenile bald eagles the first year of life is the hardest.  Fresh from the nest where their parents fed them, they’re off on their own hunting for food with almost no practical experience.  Every day is a new challenge.

The first order of business is Learn To Fish, but that’s easier said than done. Fortunately they have other options. They can munch down on carrion, grab food from others, or even eat junk food.

Junk food?

In the September issue of The Journal of Raptor Research the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) analyzed the daily movements of 64 satellite-tagged bald eagles in the Chesapeake Bay region with an eye on their use of landfills.  With five years of data and 72 landfills the study found some interesting stuff.

A flock "Down in the dumps" at a Florida landfill (photo by Chuck Tague)

“Down in the dumps” at the landfill (photo by Chuck Tague)

For starters, 10% of the landfills were really popular and garnered 75% of the bald eagles’ use.  The landfills closest to eagle roosts were the favorites.  I imagine eagles like the convenience of a breakfast or bedtime snack.

Landfill use was much more common among the young.  Compared to adults, hatch year bald eagles visited 6 times as often, second year birds 4 times as often, and third/fourth year birds 3 times as often as adults.  Even so, there were individuals in various age groups who were obviously hooked.

It appears that bald eagles give up the landfill habit as they get better at fishing.

Junk food is for the young. 😉

Read more about the eagle study here at the Center for Conservation Biology.


(photos by Chuck Tague)

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Sep 29 2015

A Bird On The Hand

Debbie Kalbfleisch hand feeds a black-capped chickadee (photo by Donna Foyle)

Debbie Kalbfleisch hand feeds a black-capped chickadee (photo by Donna Foyle)

Early this month Debbie Kalbfleisch told us of a magical place loaded with migrating warblers where the chickadees eat out of your hand. The only rules were: Bring black sunflower seed, Never feed the chickadees near the road, Leave no seed behind (or they will learn to eat from the ground, not your hand).

Our birding email group, fittingly called “The Chickadees,” could not resist these enticements so Debbie led us there last Saturday.  Above, she demonstrates that it really works.

Naturally the rest of us had to try.  Below, Barb Griffith, Ramona Sahni and I hold out our hands while Donna Foyle takes our picture.

Hand feeding wild chickadees, Barb Griffith, Ramona Sahni and Kate St. John (photo by Donna Foyle)

Hand feeding wild chickadees, Barb Griffith, Ramona Sahni and Kate St. John (photo by Donna Foyle)

As the chickadees became accustomed to our large group of 12 they came to our hands more often, taking turns and flying off to cache the seeds.

Then the warblers showed up.  (I’d forgotten that migrating warblers forage near chickadees.)  We put the seed in our pockets and raised our binoculars but the chickadees followed, still expecting to eat.  Fortunately one of us always had a hand out.

I missed a few warblers because I love the chickadees so much.

He's on my hand! (photo by Donna Foyle)

He’s on my hand! (photo by Donna Foyle)


You can train your own backyard chickadees to eat from your hand.  All it takes is cold weather and a lot of patience.  Here’s how –> Seeing Eye To Eye With Birds

Balck-capped chickadee takes a peanut from my hand (photo by Donna Foyle)

Black-capped chickadee takes a peanut from my hand (photo by Donna Foyle)


A bird on the hand is worth two in the bush.


(photos by Donna Foyle)

3 responses so far

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