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Tracking Migratory Flight in the Northeast

by Patrick McShea
Map of northeastern US and southeastern Canada with dots representing Motus stations in the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies region

Explanations of networks benefit from maps or other graphic representations of linked participants. In the case of a recent bulletin describing regional growth within the international research network known as the Motus Wildlife Tracking System, the inclusion of a map helps ground updated information about the program to the landscape.

The collaborative effort, known informally as simply Motus, a Latin word for movement, was founded by the bird conservation organization, Birds Canada in 2014, and has grown to involve hundreds of partners among scientific and educational institutions, government agencies, and independent researchers.

The ground-breaking work of Motus involves the use of automated radio telemetry to track the migratory movements of free-flying birds, bats, and insects. After an animal under study is safely captured, fitted with a highly miniaturized transmitter, known as a nanotag, and released, the creature’s flight movements are electronically detected and recorded whenever it passes within nine miles of strategically placed antennas mounted on low, just-above-tree-canopy-height receiving stations.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History is a Motus partner through the work of staff at its Powdermill Avian Research Center who have installed 136 receiving stations from western Maryland through Maine and continue to monitor 50 receiving stations from southwestern Pennsylvania up through western New York along the Adirondack Mountains. 

Although Motus stations are in place across the Western Hemisphere landmass from Nunavut, Canada, to southern Chile, the world’s densest concentration of them is found in the thirteen U.S. states and five Canadian provinces that make up the network’s Northeast Collaboration. The 504 tower sites in this territory represent one third of the global total, and since 2017 have logged more than 170 million nanotag detections. This tracking has involved more than 4,700 tagged individuals of 147 species of birds contributing vital information to 194 different research projects.

Ongoing maintenance and technological upgrades will be necessary for the Northeast Motus Network to continue generating research findings that inform conservation initiatives. As Jon Rice, the Museum’s Urban Bird Conservation Coordinator explains, “As this network reports findings for museum research into both the survivorship of window collisions and stopover behavior for species of greatest conservation need, it simultaneously supports ongoing research for countless other projects in the western hemisphere. The real power of this technology isn’t captured by the map. It’s our ability to help our neighbors using the same resources we are using to perform our own novel research.”

Patrick McShea is an Educator at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

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Ruffed Grouse or Scarlet Tanager: Debating the Pennsylvania State Bird

Carnegie Museum of Natural History Blog Citation Information

Blog author: McShea, Patrick
Publication date: July 17, 2023

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Ruffed Grouse or Scarlet Tanager: Debating the Pennsylvania State Bird

by Pat McShea

Should a wildlife species representing a state reflect the creature’s abundance within the designated boundaries? Where state birds are concerned, the topic is now wide open for discussion because of an enlightening article in the spring issue of Living Bird, the quarterly publication of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

In “What if the State Birds Were Determined by Data?” authors Matt Smith, an applications programmer for the Lab’s Macaulay Library, and Marc Devokaitis, associate editor for Living Bird, make a strong case for the “thought experiment” of revising such symbols. They trace the current arrangement to a campaign by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in the 1920s that eventually resulted in a designated “bird of honor” for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the 13 provinces and territories of Canada.

Chief among the current system’s deficiencies are birds earning honors for multiple states. The Northern Cardinal, for example, holds the revered position in seven states, creating a red bird belt stretching westward from North Carolina and Virginia across West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.

As remedy, Smith and Devokaitis suggest a more scientific selection process based upon millions of community science observation records in eBird, the vast and easily accessible electronic archive of bird sightings managed by Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Examination of this enormous data set, when paired with analysis of satellite-generated land-cover maps, reveals how the biogeographical conditions in many states favor the well-being of particular species. Selecting such species for recognition not only produces unique state bird designations, but also directs public attention to the ecosystem that supports the honored birds.

Here in Pennsylvania, where the Ruffed Grouse has reigned as our state bird since 1931, such data driven recommendations might seem unnecessary. No other state so honors the Ruffed Grouse, and the species’ collective value to Pennsylvania residents includes the gamebird’s historic importance as a food source and its current role as the focus of much upland sport hunting. 

ruffed grouse taxidermy mount
Ruffed Grouse taxidermy mount.

In a challenge to this status quo, documented observations and land cover conditions point to a smaller and brighter bird for state honors, the Scarlet Tanager. Pennsylvania, according to the reasoning behind the nomination, supports a greater breeding population of these songbirds than any other state. 

taxidermy mount of two scarlet tanagers
Pair of Scarlet Tanagers.

The species, whose descriptive name is an apt description of the male bird in breeding plumage, could certainly attract advocates. In All About Birds, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s encyclopedic online reference, the nominee’s description begins with its pure visual appeal: Male Scarlet Tanagers are among the most blindingly gorgeous birds in an eastern forest in summer, with blood-red bodies set off by jet-black wings and tail. Viewing expectations are quickly tempered by subsequent sentences, which, after noting the dark-winged female’s otherwise yellowish-green plumage, and the species overall preference for high tree canopies, recommends using the birds’ distinctive call as an aid to visually locate them. 

Whenever circumstances make it possible for such advice to be followed, there is great potential for the development of more ardent Scarlet Tanager fans. Gabi Hughes, Environmental Educator for the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, recalls a spring when a male Scarlet Tanager would reliably sing from the woods just beyond the suburban Pittsburgh middle school campus where she was leading bird-focused activities with seventh grade students. By her estimate, over the course of multiple small group hikes, at least 80 seventh grade students saw and heard the bird, a creature introduced to them as a spring and summer resident of their neighborhood who had recently returned from wintering grounds as distant as Bolivia.

For Ruffed Grouse fans, declining populations, a trend attributable to reductions in the mixed forest stage habitat across Pennsylvania, as well as the species’ susceptibility to West Nile Virus, might be of far greater concern than a revision of symbolic honor. As a fallback position, Ruffed Grouse backers might even cite the specific wording of the relevant 1931 statute, making their case that “state game bird” should be regarded differently than “state bird.”

Pat McShea is an Educator at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

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Carnegie Museum of Natural History Blog Citation Information

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Chirp, Chitter, Caw: Surrounded by Bird Song

Chirp, Chitter, Caw logo with a pileated woodpecker

July 1 – September 4, 2023

Presented by The World According to Sound and Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Explore the world with your ears in the new exhibition Chirp, Chitter, Caw: Surrounded by Birdsong. Relax in a listening lounge, mimic unusual bird calls, and stroll down Bird Hall to hear sonic snapshots created by artists Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett—founders of The World According to Sound. Listen to the low rumble of the Southern Cassowary, the Superb Lyrebird mimicking the songs of other birds, and the rhythmic knocks of the Pileated Woodpecker. Tune into the world of birdsong and discover the beauty and complexity of avian communication that surrounds us. Enjoy the museum’s birds like never before.

Turkey Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Southern Cassowary
Pileated Woodpecker
Superb Lyrebird
Northern Cardinal

Building Birding Skills

by Patrick McShea
Cardinal from the CMNH Educator Loan Collection.

Today is National Go Birding Day, a designation that prompts questions about how best to become involved in such a do-anywhere activity. As a museum educator, my general advice for anyone seeking to develop bird observational skills is to regularly visit the expansive All About Birds website maintained by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

However, when I stop to consider that many potential birders might lack regular internet access, or how my own life-long interest in birds began before I learned to read, alternate approaches gain importance. In light of these circumstances, recent advice from Nick G. Liadis, Avian Conservation Biologist, and founder of the organization, Bird Lab, has universal relevance.

“I almost always start any educational program by asking the question: Did you see a bird today? The answer is almost always ‘yes’ by most of the participants, even children as young as four-years-old. It’s a great springboard into birding/bird-related conversations. It all unfolds from there.”

Nick, whose bird research experience includes past appointments at Point Reyes Bird Observatory in California, and the Museum’s Powdermill Avian Research Center, was explaining the approach he successfully used last summer when he accepted the challenge of presenting the broad topics of birds and bird migration to the 4 – 13-year-old participants in Art in the Garden, a six-week summer camp at the Borland Garden, a community garden and green space in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood.

 “We’d often talk about a bird’s behavior: If it was singing, where was it perched? Had you seen it before etc. Then I’d talk about how different species have different preferences. Some like living next to people. Some like to be on the tops of trees, and some like to be on the ground etc. This helped to reinforce the beautiful fact that birds are everywhere. That observation really resonates with people.”

Nick borrowed encased taxidermy mounts from the Museum’s Educator Loan Collection for use in some camp sessions, but magazine pictures of birds, field guide images, and especially, the taxidermy mounts of the Museum’s Bird Hall, can also stimulate discussion. Nick simply asked campers to report what they noticed about the preserved birds. “Often their observations were about the feathers. But then we’d talk about the beak and the feet. Those observations helped them to connect the bird to a habitat type or a food preference, and follow-up conversations were about how places as specific as backyards, treetops, or even tree trunks met the needs of some birds.”

Taxidermy mounts of a male and female Scarlet Tanager.

A story involving a Zoom call provides anecdotal evidence of how well the birding skills of some campers developed under Nick’s guidance last summer. “One of the kids in the camp was on a Zoom call with his grandparents, who happened to be outside. A red bird flew into view and the kid recognized it as a male Scarlet Tanager! He saw the bird as different from the all-red cardinals. He even noted the black wings.”

Paying attention to the number and variety of birds you notice today is a fine way to participate in National Birding Day. The electronic resources of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology will become more useful after any observations you’re able to make. More birding resources are listed below.

Three Rivers Birding Club

Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania

Erie Bird Observatory

National Aviary

Patrick McShea is an Educator at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

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Carnegie Museum of Natural History Blog Citation Information

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Echoes of Freedom in an Owl’s Call

by Pat McShea
Barred Owl taxidermy mount

“Is that owl real?” Students who approached the museum activity station at a “Dream STEAM” event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day repeated those four words to express curiosity about a 20-inch-high Barred Owl taxidermy mount. The setting was a large meeting room in the Bible Center Church’s Worship, Arts, Recreation, and Ministry Center in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood. Here, during a busy three-hour morning session, small groups of students ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade rotated with their adult chaperones among activities related to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) or Black History and Culture.

I was one of three museum representatives who brought the owl and other, less visually striking materials, to enhance an activity we hoped would spark greater interest in science as well as increase knowledge about a heroic Black figure in American History, Harriet Tubman.

Answers of “partially real” to student questions about the owl’s authenticity were provided first, as we shared information about the taxidermy mount’s glass eyes, wire-supported feet, interior foam body, but very real feathers, beak, and talons. Then came an explanation about how in 1849, Harriet Tubman’s expert knowledge of tides, seasons, weather, wildlife, plants, and the stars of the night sky enabled her to escape enslavement on a timber plantation on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and then safely cross more than 100 miles of forest and wetlands to reach freedom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Tubman returned to Maryland multiple times during the next ten years to safely lead a total of approximately seventy people in escape from enslavement to freedom, which could sometimes only be guaranteed in places as distant as Canada. When we recounted these courageous actions for the students, the owl assumed a prominent role in our narrative. Tubman used imitations of Barred Owl calls as a code of cautionary signals to the people she physically guided. With the aid of a battery powered bird song player, the students were able to listen to the species’ distinctive barked notes, nine booming syllables that invite translation into the echoing question, “Who Cooks For YouWho Cooks For You All?”

Imitation owl calls from the students followed, spontaneous and solicited, with both types gently critiqued by a reminder that in the dark woods of 1850’s coastal Maryland or Delaware, the skill of the call’s delivery could be a matter of life or death. 

The museum’s activity station also provided opportunities for students to note owl adaptations via pencil drawings, and to examine muskrat pelts as an aid in considering Harriet Tubman’s childhood labor checking traps for the rodents in the marshes of the plantation where she was enslaved. One tabletop display that drew the attention of some students and every adult chaperone credited Ranger Angela Crenshaw, currently Park Manager for Rocks, Susquehanna and Palmer State Parks in Maryland, as the source for much of the activity’s shared information.

Harriet Tubman UGRR State Park and Visitor Center – Ranger Crenshaw with the Bust of Tubman

 A West Virginia native with strong Baltimore roots, Crenshaw presented interpretive programs for over four years as a ranger at Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center, a 17-arcre site in Dorchester County, Maryland. Last year, the bicentennial anniversary of Tubman’s birth, articles about the historic icon’s naturalist skills in both Audubon and Smithsonian magazines included quotes from Crenshaw. On May 14, a date Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey proclaimed as “Harriet Tubman Day” in the city, Crenshaw joined seven other presenters for a two-hour panel discussion on Zoom about Tubman’s legacy organized by the Dr. Edna B. McKenzie Branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History

Harriet Tubman UGRR State Park and Visitor Center – Muskrat Exhibit – MD Department of Natural Resources

When a presenter from another organization asked about how Ranger Crenshaw became a reliable source for information about Harriet Tubman, I recalled a published interview during which she described how her earliest days at the then new park forced a deep immersion into the landscape, and lots of reading about American Slavery, the religion of enslaved people, and the Underground Railroad. Among those documents was an 1868 biography of Tubman titled The Moses Of Her People, by Sarah Bradford, and a letter endorsing the book, by another native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore who escaped enslavement, Frederick Douglass

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Carnegie Museum of Natural History Blog Citation Information

Blog author: McShea, Patrick
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