Archive for the 'Books & Events' Category

Dec 21 2013

Winter Solstice

Winter sunset over the Susquehanna at the Wrightsville Bridge (photo by John Beatty)

Today at 12:11pm the sun will stand still.

We call this the “winter” solstice but it’s more accurate to call it the southern solstice because the sun is going to stand still over the southern hemisphere.  The word “solstice” describes the event:  sol means sun and stice, from sistere, means to stand still.

You might be jealous of the southern hemisphere right now because they’re in the midst of summer but take heart in this: their spring and summer are shorter than ours.

That’s because the Earth doesn’t move at a constant speed in its elliptical orbit.  It takes the Earth 92.8 days to travel from the point of our vernal equinox to the location of the northern/summer solstice (March to June), 93.6 days from the summer solstice to the autumnal equinox (June to September), 89.8 days from the autumnal equinox to the winter solstice (September to December) and 89.0 days from winter solstice to vernal equinox (December to March).  Thus the seasons aren’t equal in length.

This means that in the northern hemisphere spring and summer together are 7.6 days longer than those seasons in the southern hemisphere.  We have a week’s more warmth than they do.

If this is confusing, check out the earth map and explanation at this link at whose information I paraphrased above.


(photo of the sun setting over the Susquehanna at Wrightsville, PA by John Beatty)

No responses yet

Dec 16 2013

Everybody Loves Beethoven

Beakie the starling talks on the phone (screenshot from YouTube video)

Today is Beethoven’s 243rd birthday and we’re celebrating on Classical WQED-FM with (nearly) All Beethoven, All Day.

Beethoven’s music is so popular that birds learn to sing it.  Click on the photo above to watch a pet starling whistle his favorite Beethoven symphony over the phone.

Can you identify the symphony?

(screenshot from YouTube video)

5 responses so far

Nov 29 2013

Happy Birthday, Surtsey (Belated)

Island of Surtsey, 1999 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Fifty years and fifteen days ago, the island of Surtsey emerged from the sea off the southern coast of Iceland.

On November 14, 1963 the cook on the trawler Ísleifur II saw smoke on the water.  The captain motored over to see if it was a ship on fire or a volcano (in Iceland you know to include “volcano” on your list) and yes, it was a volcano.

From a spot of smoke it grew quickly into an island.  Here it is erupting in 1963.

Island of Surtsey erupting (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Named for a Norse fire giant, Surtsey continued to erupt for the next three and a half years until it grew even larger than it is today.  The island is literally losing ground.  It was 1 square mile at its maximum; now it’s only half.   The ocean immediately took away the loose rocks leaving behind hard volcanic cliffs.  They will eventually erode as well, it’ll just take longer.

For now Surtsey has settled down to a bland, quiet existence as a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most studied places on earth.  What began as barren hot rock now hosts at least 69 plant species and 15 species of nesting birds (nice cliffs!).  Even spiders have drifted in and set up housekeeping.

Two unexpected plants arrived with human visitors and had to be eradicated lest they became invasive.  A tomato plant grew from a seed deposited by diarrhea (yes, it happens) and some boys planted potatoes.  Wrong!  Those had to go.

Right now Surtsey is probably under snow as in this photo from January 2009.
Surtsey Island, Jan 2009 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Very quiet, but she has an amazing history.  See great photos of her fiery birth and read more of her history, including the bizarre French territorial dispute, at the VolcanoCafé blog.


(photos of Surtsey from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the original)

No responses yet

Nov 16 2013

Two Free Bird Events Next Week

Published by under Books & Events

Here are two free bird events coming up next week in Pittsburgh.

Guam rail at the National Aviary (photo from Wikimedia Commons)Monday November 18, 4:30pm, Guam Rail Reintroduction Presentation at the National Aviary

Laura Barnhart Duenas, manager of the Guam Rail and Micronesian Kingfisher captive breeding program at Guam’s Division of Aquatic and Wildlife Resources, will present a lecture on the successful bird conservation work she’s doing to reintroduce the Guam rail and other birds wiped out by the invasive brown tree snake.

The flightless Guam rail became extinct in the wild in the late 1980′s but has been bred in captivity and returned to small snake-free islands in the Mariana archipelago (Guam’s island zone).  The National Aviary has bred Guam rails since 1984, hatched 57 chicks and returned 23 of them to Guam.

Doors open at 4:00 p.m. Click here for more information. Click here for directions.



Flamingo folio print by John James Audubon (courtesy University of Pittsburgh)

Friday, November 22, 9:00am to 4:45pm, Annual Audubon Day at the University of Pittsburgh

Next Friday the University of Pittsburgh will host their annual Audubon Day at Hillman Library.  More than two dozen original John James Audubon prints will be on display in the Special Collections Reading Room, Room 363.

In addition, from 10:00am to noon, Joel Oppenheimer, one of the world’s foremost Audubon experts, will deliver a presentation titled “Audubon’s Art and the Published Editions from the Nineteenth Century to the Present” in the Amy Knapp Room on Hillman’s ground floor.

For more information including the day’s agenda, click here.




(photo of Guam rail at the National Aviary from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original. Flamingo print by John James Audubon, courtesy of University of Pittsburgh)

No responses yet

Nov 14 2013

Positive Parroting

African Gray Parrot (photo courtesy Joe Brunette/©2013 THIRTEEN Productions LLC))

If you watched Parrot Confidential on PBS NATURE last night you know that people fall in love with parrots’ charm and beauty but often adopt them with almost no information on their needs.

Unfortunately there aren’t many ways to learn about parrots except by trial and error.  This can lead to huge frustration and the birds’ surrender to an uncertain future.

If you already own a parrot or are contemplating a purchase or rescue, where can you turn?

Parrot Confidential’s website provides a list of conservation, sanctuary and advocacy resources across the U.S.   Even better, if you live in Pittsburgh you can get a hands-on education at the National Aviary’s Positive Parroting classes.

Twice a year Dr. Pilar Fish (head avian veterinarian) and Cathy Schlott (manager of bird training) conduct three two-hour classes that provide practical resources and information to lower frustration and keep the bird united with the owner.

I spoke with Dr. Pilar Fish about the classes.  She’s a life-long parrot owner, former rescuer and parrot advocate.  In fact she became a bird veterinarian because of her love for parrots. She can tell you that owning a parrot is a totally absorbing hobby, a lifelong relationship and a lifestyle-changing commitment.  As she says, “I’ve been there. I want to be a resource.”

Most people don’t realize that parrots are advanced, complex animals.  They have the intelligence and problem-solving skills of toddlers (African Grays are like 6-year-olds!) but the emotional maturity of a 2-year-old.  Imagine a child in its “terrible twos” confined to a small space with a single toy and the same food day after day.  Of course he’ll have tantrums!

In class you’ll learn how to adjust for the bird’s natural behavior.  What do these birds do all day in the wild?  If you provide your parrot with his natural routine and toys to occupy his mind he’ll be much happier.  So will you.  In class you’ll get a “cookbook” of habitats, schedules and tips and you’ll make toys to occupy your parrot and enrich his life.

The second part of Positive Parroting is about problem solving.  Cathy Schlott teaches how to train your bird in a positive way, reward good behavior and deal with behavioral issues.  She gives live demonstrations using the Aviary’s own parrots, some of whom are former pets.

Fall classes have already begun.  The first class, The Healthy Happy Parrot, was held on October 26.  Still to come are:

  • Pet Bird Enrichment, this Saturday November 16, 2013, 10:00 am—12:00 pm. (enhance natural behaviors)
  • Training Your Pet Bird, Saturday December 7, 2013, 10:00 am—12:00 pm (problem solving)

Click on this link for information on Positive Parroting.  Education is good!


p.s.  If you haven’t seen Parrot Confidential yet, watch WQED’s rebroadcast at 5:00am tomorrow, Friday November 15.  The online broadcast is available at Parrot Confidential’s website.


(photo of African Gray Parrot courtesy Joe Brunette/©2013 THIRTEEN Productions LLC)

2 responses so far

Nov 09 2013

Now We Are Six!

Six Crows, six cupcakes, six years (animaiton by Joan Guerin)

As of today I’ve been writing Outside My Window for six years.   The crows are crowing, “Yow!”

Every year I provide statistics, but since this is a Saturday I’ll keep it brief so we can get back to our errands or play time. (In my case, errands.)  Here we go:

Did you know you’re one of 574 visitors per day (this year’s average) who generate 21% of all traffic to

Some days are more popular than others.  Sadly the most visited blog entry was the news of Silver Boy’s death on June 14.  More than 3,000 people read about him that day, 79 commented here, and many more commented via Facebook and at the news websites.

Falcon or Hawk? from 2011 continues to win the top prize from Google search.

My favorite photos this year are those that tell stories:  Dramatic peregrines stooping to conquer, turkeys strutting their stuff, and a robin mistaking his reflection for a rival.

Three of the many blogs that taught me new things were:  Juvenile peregrines have special gear to help them fly, modern cornfields are wastelands, and the Border Wall affects birds, too.

Thanks to you, my readers, we have something to crow about.


Now we are six!    :)


(animation by Joan Guerin)

11 responses so far

Nov 08 2013

Canary’s Call Opens Today

Published by under Books & Events

CANA_mesh1_rsz_wikiCanary in a cage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

“The canary in the coal mine”

We use this phrase all the time to describe a small voice warning of imminent environmental danger. Before modern instruments, miners took canaries underground as indicators of unsafe conditions.  If the canary was in trouble, the mine was unsafe.

Birds tell us about the world around us if we know how to look and listen.  A new exhibit opening today at the National Aviary, Canary’s Call, highlights five unsafe conditions and links birds as the indicators of human overpopulation, pollution, habitat loss, invasive species and over-consumption.

Last night I attended a special preview of Canary’s Call.

The exhibit is absolutely gorgeous!

Located in the arc beyond the Tropical Rainforest Room, this area of the Aviary used to be a dark and tunnel-like place.  It’s now beautifully lit by hundreds of photos that tell the story of human impacts on the world of birds.

Canary's Call exhibit (photo courtesy of the National Aviary)

Several photos by the Aviary’s Mike Faix bring the story home.  Peregrine fans will recognize Dorothy and Silver Boy from the Cathedral of Learning, and “Paul” the juvenile Downtown peregrine who hitched a ride on a truck roof.

New with this exhibit are six Malayan flying foxes, indicators of human overpopulation.  These mega-bats eat fruit so they have large bright eyes, small ears and faces like foxes.  I didn’t expect to like the bats but these ladies are really cute!  All six are female. Be sure to ask why when you visit them.  (Yes they are hanging upside down in this photo.)

Malayan flying foxes at the Canary's Call exhibit (photo courtesy of the National Aviary)


Canary’s Call has four signature bird species – canaries, rhinoceros hornbills, Guam rails, and rainbow lorikeets — that are sentinels for pollution, habitat loss, invasive species, and over-consumption.  I was amazed by the Guam rails’ story as a “canary” for invasive species.

The exhibit is fun and educational.  The photos are stunning.  I found so much depth, so much to learn:  What bird is this?  Where is that desert located?  When was the canary photographed in the mine?  I learned something new each time I looked.

Don’t miss this beautiful, new exhibit at the National AviaryCanary’s Call opens today.


(photo of a canary (not from the exhibit!) is from Wikimedia Commons. Photos of the Canary’s Call exhibit are courtesy of the National Aviary)

One response so far

Nov 07 2013

Parrot Confidential

Blue and Gold Macaw (photo Courtesy of Joe Brunette/©2013 THIRTEEN Productions LLC)

No one knows for sure how many parrots are kept as pets in the U.S. — maybe 10-40 million — but we’re about to learn one thing: Thousands of them lose their homes each year and thousands more desperately need to leave their current situation.

On Wednesday November 13, PBS NATURE will premiere Parrot Confidential, the story of these intelligent, social, still-wild birds and their plight when a home with humans doesn’t work out.

Most parrots have successful relationships with their owners.  This is the untold story of the failures.  Jamie McLeod of Santa Barbara Bird Sanctuary explains, “People will say, ‘I want a bird that talks, that’s quiet, and that doesn’t bite.’  And that species has not yet been discovered.”  As a result, she says, “People typically keep parrots 2-4 years. The birds live 80 years.  Crunch those numbers out and there’s a lot of unwanted parrots out there.”

There are many reasons why a parrot-human relationship sours despite everyone’s best intentions.  The birds are highly social and demand lots of interaction and stimulation; in the wild they would never be alone.  Parrots take several years to become sexually mature and when they do they choose a mate.  In the absence of their own species they choose a member of the household, sometimes treating the rest of the family with aggression.  Changes in the human and pet family structure can trigger a parrot upset: the death of a loved one or addition of a new family member.  Some birds cope with stress by screaming, plucking and biting.

Unfortunately when a parrot needs a new home there aren’t enough shelters.  Some birds are emotionally scarred and go out for adoption over and over again.  The stories are sad but there are bright spots in the show to warm your heart:

  • There are dedicated parrot owners who love their birds and work to find what’s best for them.
  • The rescuers are real heroes.  Some have saved hundreds of parrots.
  • Some rescued parrots find a soul-mate of their own species at the shelter.
  • Because scarlet macaws are endangered in the wild, the ARA Project breeds rescued macaws in Costa Rica and releases their offspring to the forest.

I shed a few tears for the parrots, but partly for joy at the scarlet macaws flying free in Costa Rica.

Don’t miss Parrot Confidential on PBS NATURE, November 13 at 8:00pm EST.  In Pittsburgh watch it on WQED.


(photo of blue-and-gold macaw courtesy Joe Brunette/©2013 THIRTEEN Productions LLC)

p.s. See the comments for a discussion of parrot longevity.

Update on November 21:  Watch the entire show online at the Parrot Confidential website.

9 responses so far

Nov 02 2013

Messing With Our Clocks

Published by under Books & Events

Human biological clock (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Tonight we turn the clocks back and gain an hour of sleep.

The rest of nature will stay in the same time zone and on the same circadian rhythm it’s been using for a long time.  Our bodies will too.  They aren’t going to jog an hour just because we told them to.

This graphic from Wikimedia Commons looks complicated but it shows why this is going to happen.  Our bodies have a circadian rhythm that triggers on daylight.

Click on the image to see the original graphic — and larger print — showing our circadian rhythm at the equinox.  Since we have only 10.5 hours of daylight right now in Pittsburgh, the top of the graph is probably compressed.  Sunrise today is 7:51am (where the graphic says 6:00). Sunset today is 18:15 (where the graphic says 18:00).

But tomorrow morning we will be magically transported to the Rio de Janiero time zone.

Until my circadian rhythm adjusts I’m not going to be myself.


(image by Yassine Mrabet from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

2 responses so far

Oct 31 2013

Ready For Halloween

Published by under Books & Events,Mammals

Badger (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The American badger is ready for Halloween.  He always wears a mask.

This nocturnal member of the weasel family isn’t found in Pennsylvania but occurs from western Ohio to the California coast.  He makes a living by digging for small burrowing animals, especially mice, squirrels and prairie dogs so his favorite places are grasslands where the soil is easy to dig and his prey is abundant.  That’s a habitat rarely found in Pennsylvania.

American badgers are nature’s backhoes but they work at night and are usually alone.  This makes them hard to watch and census.  Even so, we can guess they’ve declined or are missing from areas where prairie dogs have been eradicated.

For a 24 minute window on the badger’s life, watch this 1970 video from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom which filmed them during the day.  I must say it brought back memories to see Marlin Perkins again.



(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original.  Video from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Season 8 Episode 108, Released 01/01/70)

3 responses so far

« Prev - Next »

Bird Stories from OnQ