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'Average' bird count called good sign

| Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, 1:45 p.m.

Two bald eagles circling over a nesting site in Harmar and volunteers counting tens of thousands of crows in Pittsburgh were among the highlights of the Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count in Pittsburgh and northern Allegheny County.

About 150 participants turned out to tally 67 species of birds and more than 45,500 individuals in a count circle with a 15-mile diameter centered in Shaler.

More than 2,300 groups nationwide have been holding Christmas bird counts on one day between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. Pittsburgh's count was on Saturday, while other counts in the region have been held in the last two weeks, with an upcoming count scheduled for this weekend in a section of Butler County.

The bird count is the annual census of birds — the oldest volunteer biological survey in the world — documenting population trends and changes in the environment.

“All of the common species were found,” said Brian Shema, the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count coordinator and operations manager for the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, headquartered at Beechwood Farms in Fox Chapel.

“Even though this was an average count, that's not a bad thing,” he said. “It means that we're maintaining our bird population.”

The most noteworthy rarity was a black vulture spotted in Franklin Park, a first-time sighting for the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count, although the bird has been recorded in the region about a dozen times in recent years. The black vulture has been expanding its range to southwestern Pennsylvania and is a scavenger like the turkey vulture, which is more common here.

The number of birds found on the water in the Pittsburgh area was low for the count as area ponds and small waterways were frozen.

But on the Allegheny and other rivers, volunteers counted four bald eagles, two of them in Harmar flying around a nest above Route 28, where both birds courted last year but did not lay eggs.

Another popular predatory bird, the state-endangered peregrine falcon was recorded in Oakland and at Duck Hollow near the Homestead Grays Bridge.

The most populous bird in Pittsburgh — which was not the case with other bird count circles in the region — was the crow. Volunteers carefully counted more than 32,000 in the city. There were about 14 times more crows than the next most populous species for the Pittsburgh count, the European starling, which numbered about 2,300, according to Shema.

The next most populous birds were the Canada goose at almost 900; the rock pigeon at almost 800, and the American robin at about 680.

The count of the roosting city crows is the highest total that the local Audubon Society has tallied for the Christmas Bird Count.

Shema said he isn't sure whether there are more crows or bird count participants are getting better at counting the unwieldy number of birds, which have been roosting in large numbers in the city for years.

Audubon volunteers and bird experts alike scouted the crows the evening before the count. On count day, they had to position themselves strategically to count the birds as they streamed in from satellite locations for a huge roost in Pittsburgh's West End.

Large crow roosts are found across the country and in urban areas.

“We can assume that anytime birds are in flocks, there is safety in numbers,” Shema said.

According to a recent Penn State study, these large flocks of crows seem to be drawn to roosting sites where there is light pollution, according to Shema.

“The birds might have a higher sense of security there,” he said.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691.

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