On the Wing

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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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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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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