Birds

The Eastern Bluebird

Sometimes winter brings surprises. Some are massive, like a burying storm; and some are almost unnoticed, like an unexpected bird on a branch. Now is the season to look for the Eastern Bluebird, whose flash of color can be as brilliant as a winter sky after a big snow or as delightful as an early …

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Beautiful and bold

It is often the voice of the Blue Jay that initially attracts our notice. With a vocal range like its cousins the crows and ravens, the Blue Jay produces loud, strident calls, bounding whistling notes, as well as imitations of the scratchy shrieks of hawks and other birds. More than once, I’ve heard calls at …

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A Flash of Blue

A ratchety, staccato rattle announces the arrival of a Belted Kingfisher along one of Pittsburgh’s riverbanks, over a stream, or across a pond. I love the sound of the bird, so distinctive, as I scan for it in the sky. And I’m not alone. The great English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of this dashing …

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A little yellow friend

The potato chip bird. that’s how my students remember it. At first, they think it’s a canary. I show them pictures on the opening day of class, and they see yellow and call out “Big Bird?” “No,” then, “Canary?” “Wrong continent.” That’s before they’ve learned to use their eyes and ears again to recognize what’s …

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Wintering in Pittsburgh

It may be funny to think of Pittsburgh in the same geographic thought as, say, Miami, but for dark-eyed juncos, which spend many months to our north, we’re all sand and sunsets. Juncos “fly south to winter in our north, so making a sort of Florida of our best blizzards,” wrote Robert Francis, disciple of …

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Red-bellied woodpecker

A tree is a house. it’s not just an isolated organism, but also a host to forms of life from mammals to birds to insects to fungi. A tree is one element of a larger ecosystem and simultaneously a microcosm of it. And you can tell a lot about a neighborhood ecosystem based on its …

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Soaring majesty

It’s only recently that bald eagles have been able to call Pittsburgh home. For 200 years, obstacles such as habitat loss, pollution, persecution and pesticides have kept them away, but as the region’s environment improved, so did the chance of bald eagles successfully roosting here once again. Though a pair of bald eagles has nested …

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The house finch

It’s no surprise that a city defined by former immigrant neighborhoods would be the gateway for yet another group of newcomers forced to gain a foothold in unfamiliar terrain. Such is the case with Carpodacus mexicanus—the house finch—which was often called the California linnet and the Hollywood finch before it was smuggled to the eastern …

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The wood duck

Changing habitat has complex consequences for birds. Some species prefer deep, old growth forests. Others thrive around patchwork clearcuts. Some require grasslands to breed, while others reproduce in swampy bottomlands. Some of our notorious losses—the ivory-billed woodpecker and Carolina parakeet—needed relatively narrow bands of Southern wetland so much that when the trees there were felled, …

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Taking full flight

Pittsburgh’s once-endangered National Aviary wrapped up 2013 as the most successful year in its 60-year history and capped a dramatic six-year expansion. With record visitors and record numbers of new birds joining its collection (many living two to three times their life expectancy), the North Side institution has come a long way since the days …

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Wintering in Pittsburgh

With winter’s chill approaching, most birds long ago migrated south. Migration actually begins in August and continues through the milder months of September and October. Birds wing their way to more abundant food sources, with some of Pittsburgh’s species heading deep into South America to tropical climes. A few hearty species winter in western Pennsylvania, …

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The Brown Creeper

I was listening recently to an NPR interview about an elephant researcher in Africa. It was a story about the challenge of tracking a huge and relatively abundant mammal that has the tendency to disappear into the bush in the blink of an eye. While it’s hard to imagine, it’s the way of wild creatures …

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Yellow-billed cuckoo

Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods, and the patchwork-quilt variety of them gives everyone a place to call home and a sense of identity to go with it. We say Shadyside, Bloomfield or the South Side, Fox Chapel, the Strip or Swissvale, and certain images, people and lifestyles come to mind. Each place is a …

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A seasonal song

Walk to the trailhead behind the Audubon Society’s Beechwood Farms nature center on Dorseyville Road, and you’ll briefly head down toward the meadow and then uphill, west, toward the upper fields. Stroll beneath the canopy of older trees until you reach the clearings. Look up, look low and listen. That black, white, and rufous bird …

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The Canada Goose

One fall evening in New England when I was an undergraduate, I heard honking so loud it had the force of an approaching train, lasting for several minutes as geese flew by. They faded into the night but have stayed with me since. I’ve stood under a rising gaggle of geese and felt the push …

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Final flight: Lessons of the Passenger Pigeon

During our colonial period, America’s forests were felled slowly. Beginning in New England, subsistence farming and the promise of better lands to the west meant regions were settled and cleared for agriculture, then abandoned, only to regenerate. This pattern cycle of destruction and reforestation created a patchwork of fields that gave way to second growth …

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A Model Specimen

There is a reason i am a birder and not a surgeon. As I was driving one spring, I passed something bright orange on the side of the street. I couldn’t quite make it out, but I had my suspicions. Like many birders, I’m willing to watch a bird wherever it might be: perched on …

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The Pittsburgh Pigeon

displaced Pittsburghers soon will come home again. The pigeons of Mellon Square, bumped by renovations scheduled to culminate next year, are some of my favorite birds to watch, a bit of the wild smack dab in the middle of “dahntahn.” Don’t disparage these half-pound fast fliers. Though some consider them a nuisance underfoot or fear …

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Return of the Falcon

A pigeon flaps lazily above the University of Pittsburgh campus. Suddenly, a streaking peregrine falcon dives toward its unaware prey at 100 to 150 miles an hour. Weighing two pounds and just 15 to 20 inches long, the raptor tucks its wings—usually 3Q feet across—close to its body for maximum speed. The capture is quick, …

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Bold & Beautiful

I have always had a thing for road kill; not for death as spectacle, but for the opportunity to see something wild up close. Though there are limits to what I’ll inspect, I’m usually drawn to at least making an identification of the species, particularly if it happens to be avian. Thus, one afternoon, I …

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The Common Nighthawk

It’s the seventh inning stretch on a warm night at PNC Park. The sun has gone down, and the bright lights of baseball illuminate the summer sky. Downtown buildings glow across the river: Federated, Highmark, UPMC, the arched alcove of the Renaissance Hotel. Your eyes drift up above the cityscape, and then you spot it—a …

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Chimney Swifts

Chimney swifts twitter, but they do not tweet. These are creatures not of the virtual world, but of our vernal skies. When warm weather returns to Pittsburgh and the new green of spring washes over the hills, Chimney Swifts will soon appear. The bird itself is unfamiliar to most, for it never comes close to …

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