Daily Archives: March 13, 2008

Pittsburgh is for the birds

Timing is everything. 

One frigid morning last month I got up before the sun, put tea water on to boil, and looked out the window of our urban apartment to see if more snow had fallen during the night. On a bare tree branch just outside the window sat a motionless, indistinct bulky shape. A hawk had spent the night in the shelter of our building and, head nestled in its body, was still sleeping. As morning light increased my husband and I saw the raptor’s feathers stirring in the breeze. We watched for more than an hour, during which time it woke up, stretched, and eyed unaware pedestrians four stories below.


The hawk flew away by the time I headed to the library. I couldn’t wait to look our bird up in one of CLP’s bird guides. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior was available to check out, and I brought it home. My best guess is that we’d seen a juvenile red-tailed hawk.


As I like to say, timing is everything. I happened to be in the right place at the right time to observe this wild bird awaken. A week later, more good fortune arrived in a press release from an archivist at the University of Pittsburgh. Pitt’s University Library System owns one of 120 known copies of the rare, complete sets of John James Audubon’s Birds of America, printed between 1827 and 1838. The University’s Digital Research Library has just digitized and mounted online the 435 plates. Each image also links to its respective narrative within Audubon’s companion publication, the Ornithological Biography, also digitized as part of this project.

The digitized versions of Audubon’s life-sized prints are viewable online to anyone with internet access. But when you’re in Oakland, here’s a tip. The first floor of Hillman Library, across Schenley Plaza from CLP – Main, is home to a large exhibit case designed to display a single original Audubon 26 x 38 inch plate. Every two weeks, in plate number order, a new print is exhibited.

At that rate, you’d have to visit Hillman every other week for nearly 17 years to see the entire set. In the mean time, here’s the digital version of Audubon‘s red-tailed hawk.



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