Birds

The Cedar Waxwing

Pittsburgh has produced some renowned birders and ornithologists. Our hills and rivers attract a wide variety of birds, and they, in turn, inspire generation after generation to look to the skies—from John James Audubon, who painted the long-extinct Passenger Pigeon while passing through the Gateway to the West (an old moniker for our fair city), …

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Give a Little Whistle

It’s not until chapter 10 of Harper Lee’s famous novel that we are told of the magic of mockingbirds. Atticus Finch, lawyer and father extraordinaire, says, “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Benevolent Miss Maudie explains, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing …

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Golden Eagle: High, Wild and Here

Imagine the view from a thousand feet up. Snow-mantled ridges cloaked in barren forest, angling southwestward as far as an eagle can see. On the northwest horizon stands a crisp urban skyline above the glint from three rivers. That’s the view golden eagles survey as they soar along the Laurel Highlands to their wintering grounds …

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The Scarlet Tanager

A bird on fire, a male scarlet tanager perched just above my eye level. He was in a tree at the edge of the Upper Fields Trail at Fox Chapel’s Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve. Normally high in the forest canopy gleaning insects in spring and summer, this avian migrant, roughly robin size, had decided that …

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A Belted Kingfisher

“From the porch at dusk I watched a kingfisher wild in flight he could only have made for joy…” —Wendell Barry (from his poem “Before Dark”) One summer day not long ago, I sat on the front porch of our farmhouse. It’s a log house, built about 1860 and added onto over the years—a happy …

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The Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

One spring, I ventured south to Savannah, Georgia, for some sun and warmth. As a coastal locale and part of the Atlantic flyway, it was rich with avifauna heading back to nesting territories farther north in places like western Pennsylvania. It was March, and the streets of that wonderful city were alive with flowering trees, …

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The Northern Cardinal

Winter puts birders in a different mood. There are birds about, but they are fewer and generally more muted—focused on finding food, staying warm and getting through. The birds that stick around for a Pittsburgh winter are hardier, more committed, the stalwarts. They are the loyalists of cold. There is nothing better on a winter …

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Swainson’s Thrush

Fall is a time of movement: college students packed in SUVs returning to classes, younger kids nervous to get back to school, the lazy days of summer fading fast. Millions of birds are moving, too, some passing through the Pittsburgh area en route to wintering grounds to the south. Some of these migrants are more …

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Season of the Killdeer

One early summer day, I was walking the paved loops of Hartwood Acres in the North Hills. Off in the distance, a band was doing a sound check on the stage and bass notes were booming through the trees. As I headed west toward Middle Road, I passed some extended patches of gravel. It was …

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American Redstart

Are we separate from nature or part of it? Superior to all creatures, the apex of creation, or simply one species among millions? Does self awareness make us unique? What about our sense of past, present and future? These are some of the questions I’ve mulled since The Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Powdermill Avian …

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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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