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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

Turkeys

by Stephen Rogers

November is the month best known for the holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday of the month, Thanksgiving, which revolves around one of the classiest of birds in Pennsylvania, the Wild Turkey. Most people are familiar with the local, reasonably tame, birds that roam around Pittsburgh, but few know the history of this noble bird. By the early 1900s habitat loss and over-hunting had left the species in dire shape. Wild turkeys disappeared at one point from Ohio, New York, as well as 16 other states of its original range. The Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) can be credited with bringing back the species in the state. The birds became more common field and forest scenery beginning in the mid-1980’s as the agency abandoned a turkey farm that produced captive-bred birds for stocking, and focused restorations efforts on trapping wild turkeys from the areas with sustainable populations, notably northcentral PA and the mountainous areas of Somerset and Westmoreland counties, and re-locating them to areas with suitable habitat. The PGC continues to set the hunting seasons within the state, expanding or restricting both the time periods and locations for hunting to maintain a healthy wild turkey population.

close up of turkey taxidermy mount

Carnegie Museum of Natural History has wild turkey egg sets, skeletons, study skins, taxidermy mounts, and some fluid-preserved specimens from eight states as well as a couple from the failed PGC turkey farm. I was raised in northcentral PA and have contributed two turkey specimens to the collection over my years of working for the museum. One of these, a preserved fluid head, had the distinction of being dissected to study its brain by an ornithologist at the Smithsonian Institution who worked with a CMNH curator, Brad Livezey. They studied higher-level phylogeny and their publication can be seen here.

In recent years the PGC has brought back turkey hunting for two days around Thanksgiving throughout that state as an addition to regional seasons that vary depending on population levels. Because we are encouraged to blog, I thought I would relate a Thanksgiving Turkey tale here.

Among my most memorable Thanksgivings was the holiday 49 years ago, in 1971, when our family had the family of my mother’s twin sister over for dinner. Hunting was what occupied most of my waking thoughts in those days, but my hunting partner, my dad, had to work that morning and it became my task to take my Uncle John and cousin Ronnie out in four inches of new snow that had fallen the day before. My aunt, who was undergoing breast cancer treatment, wanted to spend time with her twin to celebrate perhaps their last holiday together. For these sisters and their daughters, getting the “menfolk” out of the way seemed to be the best way to create the proper atmosphere.

I had never hunted with Uncle John or Ronnie before, but I knew where to find a turkey flock.  After a mile-long hike we busted up a flock and John promptly missed one of the scattering big birds. At this point we split up, hoping to run into lone turkeys as they tried to regroup. I headed in the direction of some of the fleeing birds to use a turkey call, while John and Ronnie sat amid the large laurel thicket we had rousted the flock from.

After a period of time, Uncle John had to do what bears are notoriously known for doing in the woods. An experienced hunter would always keep his shotgun handy anywhere while hunting, but John leaned his gun against a tree and went a few feet away to do his business. Of course, out came a few turkeys into a clearing just yards away from him, looking at him with apparent wonder at what he was doing with his pants down.

We never got a turkey that day, but among the many Thanksgivings I have experienced it was the most memorable. As we all ate turkey around the ping-pong table in the basement that evening, Uncle John took his ribbing with great humility, and the banter took my aunt’s thoughts away from the cancer which was late stage at that time.

As we commemorated Breast Cancer Awareness last month, it should be on everyone’s mind that mammograms should still be done in this era of COVID.

I hope to take my gun out for a walk this Thanksgiving, but I imagine the turkeys will socially distance from me. Shooting a bird isn’t the end all of a hunt, it’s the memories we make afield.

For more history on the wild turkey see:

History of the Wild Turkey in North America

A Look Back at Wild Turkeys

Stephen Rogers is Collection Manager in the Section of Birds at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.

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Carnegie Museum of Natural History Blog Citation Information

Blog author: Rogers, Stephen
Publication date: November 3, 2020

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Halloween and Birds

Birds, being the happy creatures they are, don’t seem to me to connect with Halloween. Sure, death scenes in old movies, or exaggerated depictions of nighttime itself, are often populated with vultures, owls and corvids (crows and ravens), but Halloween itself, not so much. About the only “scary” term I can think of relating to birds is the group popularly referred to as “GOATSUCKERS.”

Early stories about goatsuckers can be credited to Aristotle and Pliny over 2000 years ago. Rumors about a group of birds now classified Caprimulgids, indicated they would suck the milk out of goats, and afterwards the goats would go blind. Of course, the stories are false, but the persistence the common group name might very well continue to frighten young children.

The 70 species of Caprimulgids remain saddled with a Family name, and in some cases a Genus name, that translates from Latin, “capra” for nanny goat, and “mulgēre” to milk, as “milker of goats,” or considering how a bird might attempt such a feat, “goatsucker.”

taxidermy mount of whip-poor-will
Image credit: Pat McShea

The family Caprimulgidae is a nocturnal group of birds referred to as nightjars or nighthawks that live worldwide except in New Zealand and on some islands in Oceania. In Pennsylvania the only birds of this group seen routinely are the Common Nighthawk and the Whip-poor-will, and both species are declining in numbers. Both are insectivorous birds with what appears to be small mouths that can actually open extremely wide to swallow insects in flight. The sounds of Whip-poor-wills can be haunting to those unfamiliar with them. For an image of the bird and a recording of their distinctive sound click this YouTube link.

taxidermy mount of common nighthawk
Image credit: Pat McShea

The CMNH Section of Birds collection, with nearly 207,000 records, includes only three “goatsuckers” collected on Halloween. Two are Pauraques (Nyctidromus albicollis yucatanensis) from Veracruz, Mexico collected in 1963, and a single Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor minor) found dead by former Amphibian and Reptiles Curator Jack McCoy in Schenley Park on Halloween night 1989. Migration should have happened long before that date – in fact this fall Pittsburgh’s estimated peak occurred September 14, when an estimated flight of 50,000 birds of various species passed overhead overnight.

Stephen Rogers is Collection Manager in the Section of Birds at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.

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Canada Goose

taxidermy mount of Canada Goose

When I think of September and waterfowl, my first thoughts go to the Canada Goose (notice I did not say Canadian Goose which is actually an incorrect name of the bird – there are of course “Canadian Canada Geese”). Nevertheless, my thoughts go to the “American Canada Goose” which seems to be everywhere near water come early fall, and the sounds of them honking puts a little flutter in those Pennsylvanians who hunt. September 1 was the first day of the resident Goose season which runs through September 25th.

Eighty years ago, Canada Geese almost never spent the summer in Pennsylvania. W.E. Clyde Todd, the first curator in the Section of Birds at the Carnegie Museum, kept meticulous records of the comings and goings of many birds in Western Pennsylvania. He has the distinction of the longest tenure of any employee at the museum, having started as a field collector in 1898 and retired and became emeritus curator in 1944. Even after retiring, he continued to come to the museum almost daily until his death in 1969. Mr. Todd, who lived most of his life in Beaver, published the landmark book Birds of Western Pennsylvania in 1940. Several paragraphs in the chapter on the Canada Goose mention early arrivals of the species from the north where they spent the summer as well as late migration to the north where they bred after having spent the winter roaming Pennsylvania fields and waterways. He mentions in the account that the first breeding of American Canada Goose did not occur until 1937 when a few pinioned geese released a few years earlier were successful in breeding in the state.

Today the Canada Goose is almost TOO prevalent for many residents. County and state parks, farm ponds, golf courses, and lawns adjacent to the three rivers seem to be very littered with “fertilizer” which prevents people from running barefoot on the lawns. There are actually professional Geese Police who use Border Collies to chase the geese away from unwanted areas, especially those where lethal means cannot be used. Loud noises have also been used, but as soon as the noises cease or the Border Collies leave, the geese return to foul the lawns and make the water “foul” also. Goose droppings contribute to over fertilization of ponds and lakes causing algal blooms which can be harmful to native fish, invertebrates, and the natural ecosystems of our waterways

Hunting is the only guaranteed method of keeping the resident Canada Goose population in check, of course only in areas where hunting is safe and legal. Hunting can reduce the negative impacts of a species that was not historically a year-round resident. In areas where the practice is safe, legal, and well-regulated, hunting can help to restore ecosystems, reduce local nuisances, provide nutritious food, and get people outdoors! Although the nuisance goose season has liberal bag limits, populations of the birds continue to increase.

Goose recipes can be found on the web using a simple Google Search. There are those who love the taste of a well-prepared bird, and those who think the meat is unfit for human consumption. Make a friend with a goose hunter and you can decide yourself.

Biography of Mr. Todd: https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/auk/v087n04/p0635-p0649.pdf

Book review: https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/auk/v057n04/p0579-p0595.pdf

Canada Goose sounds: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Canada_Goose/sounds

Stephen Rogers is Collection Manager in the Section of Birds at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.

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Bird Banding with a Crew of One

This year, spring migration was different. Cold weather early in the season (one night during peak migration saw a low of 23 degrees and was accompanied by snow) seemed to delay the arrival of many species. The paucity of insects resulting from the low temperatures seemed to drive many birds like Baltimore Orioles to find food at feeders, which delighted socially distancing observers. Then, when warm winds from the south brought the bulk of migrants north, there were a few days of really great birding until those birds either settled into local breeding territories or continued to trickle north.

One gauge of “really great birding” is seeing more than 20 species of warblers in one day, and this eye-pleasing event happened at Powdermill more than once this spring!

woman in an office holding a bird

Just as spring migration was a bit different for the birds, it was quite different for those who study birds. Across the continent, field seasons were cancelled and research projects redesigned or postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. For the first time in nearly 60 years, Powdermill’s bird banding program was unable to be run as normal. A banding operation of this magnitude requires many staff and volunteers working as a team to safely and efficiently extract, band, and process birds each day. Because bird banders’ priorities place bird safety and well-being along with human health ahead of dataset continuity, the difficult decision was made to cancel the banding season.

bird sitting on an open hand

Despite the pandemic, there were many bright spots this spring. Although a lot of research was put on hold, projects that could be run solo or by people in the same germ pool were given approval to proceed. As part of my dissertation work, I conducted a research project that is a collaboration between Powdermill and the University of Toledo to investigate the distance migratory songbirds fly between stopover locations. This project uses a novel method, sampling subcutaneous fat deposits to infer the geographic location of previous stopover areas using the data generated by stable-hydrogen isotope analysis. This first phase of the larger project was a success: I sampled 39 individuals of two species! I had mixed emotions about operating the mist nets at Powdermill alone. It was certainly lonely, but it was also peaceful and rewarding. Because the focus was on banding only a few study species, I released all other birds that I caught at the net. This meant that there were a few extra moments to marvel at the beauty of spring birds in their fresh and brightly colored breeding plumage, and to reflect on the incredible migratory journeys these relatively tiny birds make each year. There were even a few surprises in the nets, including a Prairie Warbler that stayed in the Powdermill banding area for a few weeks, and Powdermill’ s fifth ever capture of a Least Bittern, a secretive marsh bird that many yearn to see! Despite the pandemic and shutdown, spring banding with a crew of one was successful and productive.

Annie Lindsay is the Bird Banding Program Manager at Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Powdermill Nature Reserve. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.

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