Birds

The Bald Eagle

Whenever I see something white in a riverbank tree, I’m hopeful it’s a Bald Eagle. More than once, I’ve called out the sighting in eastern Pennsylvania, crossing the Susquehanna at 70 miles an hour. Most of the time, I’ve been wrong. And why would there be a Bald Eagle in Sharpsburg on the Allegheny, a …

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The Cooper’s Hawk

Near the iron gates of a hidden garden in Shadyside, a vigilant Cooper’s Hawk scans for prey. A Japanese Snowbell separates the bird from a row of roses fading into fall. There is a window, and the face of a man peering out with excitement and wonder. He can see the hawk, its beautiful warm …

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The Indigo Bunting

Let me lead you to the bird. It is neither bluebird nor blackbird but may look like both. It is the Indigo Bunting. Follow these directions to one of two destinations. Head toward Squirrel Hill and the curve where Beechwood Boulevard bends into the car lot for Frick Park. Once there, walk just a bit, …

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Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

There is a veteran haberdasher at a certain long-established men’s clothier in downtown Pittsburgh who watches birds. Let’s call him Kenny. Seeing this column one day, he asked me about an unusual avian visitor he saw in the trees of his yard. “It was black and white with a big red spot on its chest,” …

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Behold the Crow

On winter afternoons, thin inky streaks flow across Pittsburgh skies. They follow invisible channels leading over leafless hillsides, empty schoolyards and ice-strewn rivers. They drift, break apart and reconstitute, often in the city’s East End in great airborne swirls. They are the crows of Pittsburgh. Crows are common in myths, children’s stories and cartoons. Eating …

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The Ruffed Grouse

Imagine a bird like a chicken, but a little sleeker, a little more wild. Rufous, gray, with a tail that is barred with black and white stripes at the tips. When the tail pops open in a half circle, it resembles an earth-tone parasol. What’s most visually arresting about the grouse is its collar. A …

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The Great Blue Heron

Years ago, I found a long, light bone with honeycomb latticework inside that probably belonged to a juvenile Great Blue Heron.  After a winter storm, the bone lay in a pile of sticks that had blown down from the crown of an oak tree just off the 18th hole of a golf course in Fox …

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The American Robin

The early bird catches the worm,” so the proverb tells us. As the light and warmth of spring slowly thaw western Pennsylvania,  it’s likely that the American Robin will be that early morning bird with an unsuspecting wiggler in its beak. All winter, robins roam the region, foraging in loose flocks for berries and wild …

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At Your Birdfeeder

Next time you turn the heat up a notch or pull on a sweater, consider the birds. Birds that winter in western Pennsylvania wear their own down garments, feathers fluffed on cold days to trap warmed air close to their bodies. Bird temperatures run around 104 degrees on average, and on our coldest days, birds …

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Autumn Knights

When these nobles gather, they’re known as a parliament. They hold proceedings under cover of darkness and their debates typically end with sudden death for the commoners around them. Whoo are they? Owls, of course. The Great Horned Owl is the tiger of the night skies. The last one I saw was perched on a …

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On Nesting

While attention rightly goes to our region’s green buildings, the greenest construction puts them all to shame. It uses only native materials, costs nothing and is totally biodegradable. And the winner is: Bird nests, so many and so varied that we hardly notice them. Look around, and you’ll see evidence of nesting birds everywhere. While …

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Songbirds of Spring

An avian chorus is warming up, a spring concert that begins with a quiet movement and builds to a wild paean to the dawn that almost bounces us out of our beds. Take some time to listen to the growing swell of sound, and since there is usually a relationship, note the habitat in which …

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Duck, Duck, Gull

Winter weather on our three rivers brings a variety of duck and gull species to western Pennsylvania. So when frozen floes churn by or great sheets of ice cover upstream sections of the Allegheny or the Mon, the time is right within the city limits or towns nearby to look for some of the winged …

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The McKeesport Kid

I had always been fascinated by birds but never thought about owning pigeons until Fred Zoerb and I began palling around together. We were neighborhood teenagers in McKeesport when one of Fred’s uncles, who raised homing pigeons, gave him a pair. We acquired a few more, and soon Fred and I lost interest in anything …

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A Flight of Fancy

A casual glance at Tom Erdner’s Gibsonia patio on this fine Sunday wouldn’t reveal anything unusual. But there are a few clues. For instance, on the table where he’s sitting, there’s a pen, note pad, watch, calculator and cell phone.Then there’s the serious look on Erdner’s face as he keeps looking back at the western …

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Golden Eagles

Invisible superhighways. That’s one way to describe the rising air currents that will whisk raptors through central Pennsylvania during this season’s migration. Golden Eagles, attuned to the subtle relationships between topography and wind, will scan our state’s prominent ridges and deep valleys as they soar southward as they have for millennia. Golden Eagles are vaguely …

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The Hummingbird is a Powerhouse

Endurance athlete, feather-weight fighter, acrobat: all describe the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, smallest member of eastern North America’s avifauna and the only hummer to breed in western Pennsylvania. If you could hold one of these tiny birds to your ear, you’d hear a heart beating 250 times a minute—at rest. That rate rockets to some 1,200 beats …

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On Warblers

Spring begins with song, the dawn chorus warming up with a few notes in March and growing into full avian voice by May. Some of our best singers are the wood warblers, migratory songbirds, typically weighing under half an ounce, that winter from South America to the Caribbean and return northward to mate, nest, and raise …

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A Different Kind of Hunt

The Christmas hunt was long a holiday tradition. Armed with rifles and shotguns, Christmas guests would choose teams for a “side hunt” and fan out over field, woodland and riverbank. Winners bagged the largest number of birds. In 1900, a new tradition began in response to America’s nascent conservation movement. Birds would remain the quarry, …

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