Dec 09 2014

Modern Home

Barn owl in flight near its nest box (photo by Chuck Tague)

Since Chuck Tague first posted this on Facebook, his photo of a barn owl near a white box has stuck with me.  As odd as it looks, the box is the barn owl’s home.

Barn owls nest in structures — often in barns — but they don’t need entire buildings to make them happy.  A right-sized hole and good interior space are what they look for when they’re ready to nest.  If you can satisfy their needs with a smaller structure the owls will make it home.

As barn owls declined due to habitat loss, wildlife agencies across the U.S. worked to restore their populations by installing barn owl nest boxes.  This modern-looking box, designed and sold by Pittsburgh-based Barn Owl Box Company, was installed at Lake Apopka Restoration Area in Orange County, Florida.

The boxes are also popular with farmers and vintners who’ve learned that barn owls are a great alternative to poison rodent control.  The owls are tolerant of humans, tolerant of each other (no fights), breed like crazy at successful sites, and focus their hunts on the highest density rodent locations.  Lots of rodents lose their lives to feed the baby owls.

Click on this link to watch an America’s Heartland video of owls patrolling California vineyards where they’ve installed these modern homes.  As they say on the video webpage, “The next time you raise a glass of fine wine, you might want to thank an owl .”


(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Dec 08 2014

How To Escape A Peregrine Attack

If you haven’t seen this amazing video yet  …

Do great horned owls swim?  You bet they do if there’s nowhere else to go.

Last week passersby at Chicago’s Loyola Park saw a pair of peregrine falcons chasing a great horned owl away from their territory.  The owl flew out over Lake Michigan but the peregrines kept hammering it.  Eventually their attack forced the owl to ditch in the lake. Only then did the peregrines leave him alone.

Unlike ospreys, owls aren’t built to go airborne directly from the water so the owl swam the butterfly stroke to get back to shore.  peasant1 on YouTube captured it on video.

On the beach the owl caught his breath and dried out a bit before flying to a tree down the street.  Sand in wet feathers.  What an embarrassing mess!

That’s the last time this owl goes near Loyola Park!


(videos by peasant1 on YouTube, originally publicized by Fox 6 News)

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Dec 07 2014

Chicken In The Sky

Stellar nursery IC 2944 as seen by ESO's Very Large Telescope (photo by ESO)

If our eyes could look deep into space we’d see the clouds in this stellar nursery in the Centaurus constellation, 6,500 light years away.

This pink glowing nebula and clouds of dust were photographed by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) at Cerro Paranal, Chile.  The nebula’s formal name is IC 2944.  Because it’s visible to the naked eye it has a nickname too: The Running Chicken Nebula.

According to ESO’s description, the clouds are Thackeray globules “under fierce bombardment from the ultraviolet radiation from nearby hot young stars.”

Click here or on the image to find out what will happen to the clouds.

If you know where to look on a clear night, you can see a running chicken in the sky.



(photo of stellar nursery IC 2944 by ESO, the European Southern Observatory at Cerro Paranal, Chile. Click on the image to see the original)

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Dec 06 2014

Another Kind Of Siskin

Published by under Beyond Bounds

Eurasian siskin (photo by K.Lin, Hiyashi Haka, Cretive Commons license via Flickr))

While we listen and watch for pine siskins in Pennsylvania, here’s one of their cousins from the other side of the world.

This male Eurasian siskin (Carduelis spinus) resembles a pine siskin but his colors are more striking with his black cap and bright yellow and black wings and tail.  He lives in northern Europe and northeastern Asia and irrupts southward in some winters, just like our siskins do.  (Click here to see North America’s pine siskin for comparison.)

Without knowing his identity you could probably guess “siskin” if you saw him in Taiwan where he was photographed by K.Lin (a.k.a. Hiyashi Haka).

Please click on the image to see the original photo and scroll down to read K.Lin’s description of this bird.


(photo by K. Lin, Hiyashi Haka on Flickr, Creative Common license)

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Dec 05 2014

They Can Always Eat What They Want

Published by under Birds of Prey

Turkey vultures in Garland, Pennsylvania (photo from Wikimiedia Commons, Creative Commons license)

In adulthood you begin to notice that no matter how much you like certain foods, you just can’t eat them anymore without feeling lousy.  At each new discovery my husband and I say, “You Can’t Always Eat What You Want” (from this parody of The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want).

But if we had the guts of vultures we could eat anything!

Vultures eat rotted, bacteria-ridden, poisonously-infected carrion that would kill any other animal but it never hurts them.  Think of this:  Vultures eat anthrax and they don’t get sick!  How do they do it?

The answer is:  Vultures evolved an extreme gut to cope with their disgusting dietary habits.

Since vultures’ faces get really dirty when they take apart a carcass, researchers from Denmark and The Smithsonian teamed up to compare the bacteria on vultures’ faces and in their guts.  If there’s less bacteria in their guts than on their faces, their guts are cleaning up the mess.

According to Science Daily, the study generated DNA profiles from the bacteria living on the face and guts of 50 black and turkey vultures.  On average, the vultures’ facial skin contained DNA from 528 different types of micro-organisms, whereas their guts had DNA from only 76 types.

“Apparently something radical happens to the bacteria during passage through their digestive system,” said researcher Lars Hestbjerg Hansen of Aarhus University.

You bet!

Vultures can always eat what they want.


Click here to read more in Science Daily.

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

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Dec 04 2014

TBT: The Crows Know

Published by under Crows, Ravens

American Crow (photo by Brian Herman)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

As birds fly overhead they notice things we humans cannot see because we’re stuck on the ground with a narrow perspective.

Most birds ignore our activity but crows pay attention to humans and watch for things of interest.  How else could they find out it’s Garbage Day and show up just in time to poke holes on in our garbage bags?

In February 2011 there was an early morning mystery on my street.  At dawn, the crows leaving the winter roost flew over my neighborhood and saw it below.  Each flock paused, circled above, and cawed loudly. Click here to read what happened that morning.  The crows were the first to know.

This fall Pittsburgh’s winter crow roost has settled in the Hill District above Bigelow Boulevard near Cliff Street. Because of its location very few crows fly over my neighborhood at dawn.

If there’s a mystery this winter it will have to wait for us humans to discover it.


(photo by Brian Herman)

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Dec 03 2014

The Link Between Hemlocks And Birds

Published by under Trees

Eastern hemlocks shading Tom's Run, Cook Forest State Park (photo by Nicholas Tonelli via Wikimedia Commons)

As I mentioned two weeks ago, a Pennsylvania hemlock project needs volunteers to report hemlock woolly adelgid in the Allegheny High Plateau so that the trees can be protected against this deadly pest.

Many of us want to help because we love the hemlock’s beauty, but for some birds the trees are more than beautiful, they’re essential.

At the project kickoff seminar Dale Luthringer told us about hemlocks and their link to birds.

Eastern hemlocks are the most shade tolerant tree in the U.S. and can thrive in pure stands or in damp areas of deciduous forests.  Wherever hemlocks grow their dense evergreen canopy creates a cool, shady habitat that’s used by 90 species of birds.

Studies have shown that six species depend so much on hemlocks that they decline when the woolly adelgid kills the trees.  Here are the six who go missing:

Black-throated green warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

(1) Black-throated green warblers are obligate to hemlock stands. They experience a 93% decline when the trees die off. (photo by Steve Gosser)

Blackburnian warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

(2) Blackburnian warblers like all hemlocks but prefer old growth stands. They’re found 40 times more often among old growth hemlocks than younger trees. (photo by Chuck Tague)

Ovenbird with nesting material, May 2014 (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

(3) Ovenbird populations go down when hemlocks die (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

and… (4) hermit thrushes, (5) blue headed vireos and (6) Acadian flycatchers decline where the woolly adelgid takes its toll.


With hemlocks covering 19 million acres in the eastern U.S., we’ll lose a lot of habitat — and birds — if we do nothing to combat the hemlock woolly adelgid.

Read more here on how you can help the Allegheny High Plateau adelgid project. (See where on this map — from Cooks Forest northward to NY).


Eastern hemlocks shading Tom’s Run in Cook Forest by Nicholas Tonelli, via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original.
Black-throated green warbler by Steve Gosser
Blackburnian warbler by Chuck Tague
Ovenbird by Marcy Cunkelman

p.s. Magnolia warblers are also affected. They’re 45 times more likely to be found in old growth hemlock forests than in stands of younger trees.

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Dec 02 2014

Biological Immortality

Published by under Musings & News

Male and female red lobsters (illustration by Francis Hobart Herrick via Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know that there’s such a thing as biological immortality?  That the mortality rate in some species does not increase with age?

Most plants and animals experience senescence, an age-related functional deterioration that also occurs on the micro scale. Cells progressively lose their ability to divide and grow properly.

There are some notable exceptions to this rule including hydras, a species of jellyfish, planarian flatworms and lobsters.

Lobsters achieve biological immortality by expressing telomerase through most of their tissue, even as adults. Telomerase is the enzyme that repairs the DNA sequences at the ends of the chromosomes so that when a cell divides it doesn’t lose any information.  Human fetuses have telomerase but we don’t have it as adults.  Lobsters always have it so they never age.

Despite their immortality, predation or an accident can end a lobster’s life.   Accidents come to mind right now because …

On Tuesday November 25, just before 4:00pm, my husband was hit by a car while he crossed Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill — he was in a crosswalk! and the car had a stop sign!   He has 9 broken ribs on his right side, a broken nose, bruises, a concussion and (had at first) a partially collapsed right lung. After six days in UPMC Presbyterian Hospital, at first in the ICU then in the trauma wing, he came home late yesterday for the long, painful, healing process.  We are thankful his injuries were not worse.

In an accident, it doesn’t matter if you’re biologically immortal.


(illustration by Francis Hobart Herrick via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

p.s.  You may be thinking, “How can she blog while this is going on?”  Answer: Birds and nature are what keep me sane.

p.p.s. Thank you, Lydia, Wes, Brittny, Amanda and Erin for such excellent care while my husband was in the hospital.

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Dec 01 2014


Roseate Tern chasing Common Tern at Petit Manan Island, Maine (photo by USFW via Wikimedia Commons)

On Saturday’s blog, red+white made pink.  Today, pink makes for roseate names.

The roseate tern has been called the most beautiful tern on earth for his pale rose-colored breast and long fluttering tail streamers.  In the photo above, a roseate tern (Sterna dougallii) chases a common tern at Petit Manan Island, Maine. Look closely and you can see the pale pink blush on the tern in the foreground, so pale that the color is not one of its field marks.

The beautiful bird has a good reason for chasing the common one.  Roseate terns are listed as endangered in the Northeast and where both species nest, such as Petit Manan, the common terns push out the roseates.

The roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) is a South American bird whose U.S. population was decimated during the plume-hunting era.  Now that its carmine, orange, and rose-colored plumes are no longer used for hats, it’s made a modest comeback in Florida and the Gulf Coast states. In Chuck Tague’s photo you can’t see the bird’s orange upper tail but you can see why its name is “roseate.”  What a pink bird!

Roseate spoonbill (photo by Chuck Tague)

And finally, even a dragonfly can be rose-colored.  The roseate skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea) ranges from the southern U.S. to Brazil and has been introduced in Hawaii, perhaps because it’s beautiful.  Chuck Tague photographed this one in Florida.

Roseate skimmer (photo by Chuck Tague)

Though their shades of pink are not the same, all three deserve a roseate name.


(Photo of a roseate tern chasing a common tern from US Fish and Wildlife via Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original.  Photos of roseate spoonbill and roseate skimmer by Chuck Tague)

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Nov 30 2014

Rarely Stands Still

Published by under Beyond Bounds

Silver-eared Mesia (Leiothrix argentauris), Mae Wong National Park, Nakhon Sawan,Thailand (photo by JJ Harrison via Wikimedia Commons)

Except for the “jumpy” attitude in her eye, this beautiful bird looks as if she forages slowly on the ground.

Silver-eared mesias (Leiothrix argentauris) are native to Southeast Asia where they live in the forest eating insects and fruit.

DNA testing recently re-classed them into new family (Leiothrichidae) and genus names (Leiothrix instead of Mesia), so it’s confusing when you look them up.  The books are hopelessly out of date and the Internet has both names.

At this link to an old name, Mesia argentauris, you’ll find videos, photos and sounds.  The birds are so fast-moving that some of the videos are posted in slow motion!  Even when standing still, silver-eared mesias rapidly flick their wings and tails.  Click here to see a male foraging at a feeding station.  Wow!

This female was photographed in Mae Wong National Park in Nakhon Sawan, Thailand.  After you’ve seen them move, you realize how hard it was to capture this sharp photo.


(this photo is a Featured Picture on Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.)

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