Tag Archives: birds

Spring Fever!

crocusYesterday The New York Times published a lovely editorial praising the robin as the harbinger of spring. The editors wrote:

Somehow the robin stands for all the birds migrating now, the great V’s of geese heading north, the catbirds that will show up surreptitiously in a month. It also stands for the surprise of spring itself, which we had begun to fear would not arrive. We have all been keeping watch, as though one morning it might come sailing over the horizon. And now it’s here — the air a bit softer, snowdrops and winter aconites blooming, the bees doing their cleaning and the robins building their nests again.

As Denise mentioned yesterday, Sunday’s equinox marked the official beginning of spring, and in celebration I’m engaging in all sorts of seasonal activities. From watching the peregrine falcons at the Cathedral of Learning guard their newly laid eggs to checking up on what the fashion world‘s elite have in mind for post-sweater weather, all things spring have caught my attention. My reading taste has spring fever, too, and I’m checking out lots of books related to nature and the outdoors.

John Fowles The TreeThe other day I stumbled across John Fowles’  The Tree, a naturalist classic whose website describes it as a “moving meditation on the connection between the natural world and human creativity, and a powerful argument against taming the wild.” The newest edition boasts an introduction by Barry Lopez, whose own nature-oriented meditations I’ve recently enjoyed in magazines like Tricycle.

The Tree is light enough to bring it with me on walks, another favorite warm weather Wanderlust : a history of walking / Rebecca Solnit.activity of mine. In the fall, I moved into a new house, so I’m looking forward  to discovering the changes warmer seasons bring to my new neighborhood.  As I read Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking,  my mind can wonder about walking as I wander around.

The spell of the sensuous : perception and language in a more-than-human world / David Abram.One book that’s inspired many a musing since I read it is deep ecologist David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, a philosophical reflection on the ways nature may have shaped humans’ linguistic and perceptual evolution. In lyrical, moving prose, Abrams imagines our place in nature as participatory and reciprocal–both seeing and seen, feeling and felt–by the network of animals and landscapes we’re part of.

Springtime inspires my political activity as well. The more time I spend in our beautiful habitat, the more I appreciate and want to protect it. Locally, concerns about the environmental effects of natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale and uncertainly about how our state’s elected legislature will handle it motivate me to stay informed about the subject and tell my state representatives how I feel.

In terms of my personal habitat, I’m preoccupied with all of the possibilities for a raised bed garden I’m planning. To prepare, I’m consulting every gardening resource I see (including my wise coworkers), and tomorrow I’m attending Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s free lunchtime lecture about rain barrels and rain gardens.

Reading, walking, gardening, and generally growing give me plenty to do as the days lengthen. I hope spring fever also brings you lots of ways to spend your ever-increasing hours of sunlight!


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bird’s eye view

feeding time at the Harrisburg nest

feeding time at the Harrisburg nest, 5/7/9

Last week, I met my new favorite Pittsburghers, who live on the 40th floor of the Cathedral of Learning.  They are Dorothy, E2, and a brood of newly-hatched peregrine falcon chicks.  A video feed that the National Aviary in Pittsburgh installed in 2007 updates every few seconds, so anyone can witness the birds’ daily activity live.

That we are able to observe such wild animals with such intimacy is impressive, but the fact that the peregrines are there at all is a tremendous feat in itself.  Peregrine falcons (whose name means “wandering,” in reference to their migration habits) used to be among the most widespread birds in the world.  They live on every continent except Antarctica and adapt to nearly every climate.  Use of the pesticide DDT in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, however, caused peregrine eggshells to thin and break easily, killing the incubating chicks.  In the US, their population reduced by an estimated 12%.  Peregrines were among the first species listed as endangered in 1974, and although they were removed from the federal list in 1999, they remain on some states’, such as Pennsylvania’s.

feeding time at the Cathedral of Learning nest

feeding time at the Cathedral of Learning nest, 5/7/9

But the peregrines are coming back, thanks to a professor at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the Peregrine Fund at the World Center for Birds of Prey, goverment agencies, and passionate people dedicated to saving the falcons.  These organizations raise injured or vulnerable birds in captivity and release them, band and track birds, and place special nests in sites where wild birds show interest.

Peregrines are fascinating animals.  Among the fastest creatures on Earth, they can dive up to 200 mph to snatch prey from the air, mid-flight.  The chicks begin cheeping through their shells before they even hatch.  According to the animal totem book Animal Speak, falcons represent mental agility and “teach us to know when to act” and “to fully commit to our actions for the greatest success.”

Watching the tender moments when the parent birds quietly guard or nestle with the brood or tear up prey and carefully feed each hungry beak reveals a tender, patient side to these creatures renowned for their skilled hunting abilities.  Right now, the nestlings mostly huddle in a white fluffy pile, but I am so excited to witness them become fledgelings over the next few weeks and then move on to seek their own partners and nesting sites. 

Peregrine adults and chicks in the Harrisburg nest, 5/7/9 ~7:00 pm

Peregrine adults and chicks in the Harrisburg nest, 5/7/9

The falcons nesting at the Cathedral of Learning are among many other peregrines who live in cities.  Their closest neighbors reside on the 37th floor of the Gulf Tower downtown.  Another pair uses the 15th floor of the Rachel Carson State Office Building in Harrisburg–monitored by a real-time, streaming video feed (with sound!).  Still others live all over the world, partnering with wild falcons or others raised in captivity or the human-created nests.

For more about the Pittsburgh peregrines and other wildlife, be sure to check out the empassioned, funny, and extremely informative blog Outside My Window, maintained by Kate St. John, a WQED employee and the enthusiastic authority on our feathered yinzers.

If these falcons inspire you to celebrate some of the other wild birds in your habitat, refer to Eleventh Stacker Julie’s post from about a year ago for some suggestions on guides and an account of her own up-close raptor encounter.


sleepy time at the Harrisburg nest, 5/7/9 ~7:00 pm

sleepy time at the Harrisburg nest, 5/7/9




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Les Oiseaux du Printemps

With the change to daylight savings time and some warmer weather, birds are brightening our mornings with their spring calls.  Perhaps this is the year to explore what birds go with what songs here in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is a fantastic place to start. Add to our in-hand materials some information-laden websites and you have everything you need except the birds themselves.  Check in with the Three Rivers Birding Club for lots of information on where to find the birds, and if you venture east to the Laurel Highlands, the new nature center at Powdermill Nature Reserve has a bird song identification exhibit.

A good  introduction to birds and their songs is a two DVD set Audubon Video Guide to 505 Birds of North America which provides audio and video clips as well as a succinct description of  each bird.  A mini printed field guide comes along with it.  For those who want to learn while driving, check out the 3 CD set that serves as a companion to the Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region.  Also,  More Birding by Ear is comprised of CDs that group birds by type of song.  The website All About Birds from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology is a very approachable introduction to bird identification, bird song and general bird lore.  Check out the Wood Thrush in any of these resources; it’s one of my favorites.


From our book collection, Music of the Birds: A Celebration of Bird Song by Lang Elliott approaches the subject through stunning photographs, a 75 track CD, and an engaging narrative.  He also has a nifty website Learn Bird Songs! where you can find a selection of common birds linked to photos and audio clips. (Incidentally, this author’s book Songs of Insects has an accompanying CD that will plunk you directly into a porch swing on a hot, lazy August evening!  His Insects Jukebox website gets you at least part way to the swing.)

Taking your exploration in another direction is a book/website combo that explores Why Birds Sing and includes among other more serious things, the author David Rothenberg’s forays into playing duets (he’s a clarinetist) with birds. He recorded the Laughing Thrush duet at Pittsburgh’s National Aviary.  One chapter in the book is devoted to some classical music composers such as Vivaldi, Beethoven and Messiaen, who utilized bird song in their compositions.  (Rothenberg has more recently delved into whale music but that’s another blog post.)

How do birds learn their songs, why do some birds have long songs and others just chirps – these and other questions that go beyond identifying bird with song are covered in The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong by ornithologist Donald Kroodsma.  In Birdsong: A Natural History, writer Don Stap follows Kroodsma on some of his many treks to uncover more of the mysteries of why birds sing.  

Or, you can skip all of this and simply enjoy the sounds of spring!

— Kathie


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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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