Birds

Fond and Friendly

If any bird qualifies as the neighbor we’ve known our whole lives, it has to be the chickadee. Gregarious, sprightly, and fearless, chickadees can become so habituated to people and the offer of birdseed that they’ll literally eat out of your hand. They’re at our windows wherever a feeder goes up, finding the food within …

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The Peak Before Migration

I appreciate the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. There are seasons of want and seasons of plenty, seasons of abundance and seasons of scarcity. That’s true for both people and birds. With all this year’s hatchlings taking to the wing, fall marks the annual peak for avian populations before the rigors of migration, predation, and the other …

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Listen for the Song of the Wood Thrush

The wood thrush sings a haunting song, “Ee-oh-lay.” Just three syllables, it’s a brief, ethereal mix of bouncing notes and plaintive, romantic flutings. I have heard the males sing from brushy patches of suburban scrub in the late spring and from deep in the summer woods. Their notes are almost elven, with something beckoning and …

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A Couple of Rare Birds

The couple walked briskly down the road, binoculars around their necks. Spring had come to western Pennsylvania and with it migratory birds, but they were only interested in one species, the cerulean warbler, and the check mark they could add to their life list once they saw it. Bird watchers come in many varieties. At …

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The Evening Grosbeak – a Bright Winter Visitor

The day I saw the evening Grosbeaks up along the Allegheny River, I was at a winter corporate retreat at a golf club. I was sitting at a conference table and outside, there were bird feeders. Grosbeaks were picking seeds at every opening, stacked one atop the other. I have no memory of what the …

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This Fall, Look for the Red-Shouldered Hawk

Our raptors are ubiquitous but easily confused with one another. In western Pennsylvania, with its thick forests, sloping mountains, and suburban regrowth, we regularly can see sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks, red-tailed hawks, broad-winged hawks, and the occasional rough-legged hawk, northern harrier, and northern goshawk. Add in the red-shouldered hawk, and we have some eight species …

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The Fledgling Wren that Wouldn’t Budge

What must it feel like for a baby bird to fledge? To take a leap (of faith?) and fly for the first time? I couldn’t help but wonder one warm day when I watched a clutch of birds fly off our front porch. I feared, however, that if I wrote about birds’ feelings, I’d be …

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A Lesser-Known Pittsburgh Raptor: the American Kestrel

As far as shopping plazas go, the Waterworks Mall in Fox Chapel is pretty typical. A Five Guys and a Chipotle. Party City. A Barnes & Noble that still carries… books! A Giant Eagle, the kind that sells groceries, not the feathered kind that have begun to nest again just up the river in Harmarville. …

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Darken Our Skies to Help the Birds

Who doesn’t love the sparkle of the Downtown skyline when cheering on the Pirates at PNC Park? I’ve sat marveling at the view across the water as the Bucs warm up and the stadium lights begin to come on. The glass, metal and stone are iconic of the Steel City. Then I imagine birds migrating …

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Keep Warm and Watch for Flickers

Forty below zero isn’t cold if you dress for it. I learned that in the Wyoming backcountry when I spent three weeks winter camping one February. We ate high-calorie diets, slicing butter into hot cocoa for the extra fat, and built thick snow shelters to pass the frigid nights. When it dropped below zero, we …

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What’s that Otherworldly Sound in the Wee Hours?

The medical residents were gathered in the library of the house on Pembroke Place in Shadyside for their monthly journal club when a knock came at the home’s entrance. After a brief exchange, there was a strange request: “Doctors,” said the convening surgeon, “we’re needed next door. There is an unusual intruder.” It seems an …

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The Black-Throated Blue Warbler

The male is dark blue, white and black. The female is olive brown and grey with a white patch mid-wing, when folded. The contrast is called sexual dimorphism — two versions of the same species depending on gender. Look and listen for something spectacular. This is a bird you’ll want to find. My first encounter …

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It’s a Bird, Not an Insult

One April morning when I was watching my feeders, I noticed a woodpecker on a branch. At least I thought it was a plain, old woodpecker. Black and white plumage, chisel-like beak. But there was red on the front of its face and chin. Not the back-of-the-head, red splotch of the male downy or hairy …

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Tap Tap Tap

Set aside that steaming cup of cocoa and watch. Your bird feeders, flecked with last night’s early snow, beckon. That black and white blur is the first downy woodpecker of the day. There is a red streak on the head: the male. He’s a regular. The chickadees and titmice are his winter companions. They flock …

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The Gray Catbird—a Natural Mimic

“It seems like there’s a cat in the bushes, but I think it’s a new species.” That’s the report from our daughter, who is learning her birds. She knows chickadee and blue jay, cardinal and crow. She’s seen an eastern screech owl and two short-eared owls. And a merlin. Nice birds. But the phantom cat …

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The Oven Bird

In 1916 when Robert Frost published “The Oven Bird” in his collection Mountain Interval, he had just returned from three years in England. There, he found his poetic voice in both the vernacular and imagery of New England as well as traditional British forms. “The Oven Bird,” a sonnet like many of Frost’s poems, describes …

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What’s That Song?

Spring brings warblers! It’s that simple. Spring, longed for after the buffeting chill of winter, gives way to warmth and light… and birds. Birds by the millions feel the instinctual pull north every spring, and we who await their passage are rewarded with color and song. One of my favorite species is the black-throated green …

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Snow Birds Fly Away—to Pittsburgh

When we hear of snow birds this time of year, the first thing that comes to mind is probably grandparents in Florida. “At least,” we think to ourselves, “they have the good sense to fly somewhere warm.” The same might be said of a bird that I never see except in western Pennsylvania’s coldest months: …

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The Great Migration Begins

Across the sky, everything is moving. Fall migration actually begins in August when the first waves of long-distance travelers begin to push south. Warblers, hummingbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds and hawks begin southward journeys. Some have nested and fledged chicks over the summer in sight of the Point, Flagstaff Hill, the Highland Park Bridge, the furnace chimneys …

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King of the Woodpeckers

The pileated woodpecker burst out of nowhere just as I thought my students’ field exam was over. As soon as we were aware of it materializing from the canopy of a tree on a green at the Pittsburgh Field Club, it flew like a black bolt into denser woods and disappeared again. A great last …

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Cigars With Wings

“But one day the swifts are back. Face to the sun like a child You shout, ‘The swifts are back!’ ” —from “Swifts,” by Anne Stevenson At first I thought they were bats, and I was thrilled because bats are nearly nonexistent on our farm now. But something wasn’t quite right. How high they flew. …

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Look for the Canada Warbler

Imagine you’ve somehow found yourself in Ecuador. You desperately want to get to Pittsburgh. You weigh a third of an ounce. You can fly. You’re a Canada Warbler. Starting north on a spring night to avoid daytime predators and take advantage of cooler temperatures, you set out across the isthmus of Panama, over Costa Rica, …

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